A young child watches as a woman is forced to drown her own baby. A pupil sees a girl of age seven beaten to death for stealing a few grains of wheat. A factory worker has his finger cut off for accidentally dropping something.
This is everyday life for most people living in North Korea.
Story by Ceci Gonzales
North Korea suffers from one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. According to LiNK statistics, North Korea’s government has left its people in hunger, with 33 percent of the population in famine. In addition, freedom of speech, press, assembly, physical movement and religion are forbidden. If one is to go against these regulations, they will be detained and sent to a prison camp where they are overworked, tortured, raped or executed. Many of the prisoners are not expected to survive the extreme conditions and LiNK reports have estimated that more than 400,000 prisoners have already died in these political prison camps.
Seeking a better life, North Koreans escape to China, where they are not recognized as refugees, but as economic migrants. Chinese police look for refugees and arrest them, sending them back to North Korea where they will be put into political prison camps and be punished or executed. If they do escape from the police, refugees are trafficked, and children are orphaned without paperwork nor protection.
For over ten years, hundreds of thousands have left North Korea seeking the basic necessities such as food and freedom. Refugees must travel over harsh terrains such as mountains and deserts in order to escape and LiNK reports estimate that up to 300,000 are hiding in the underground today where families are often separated during the journey.
Fortunately, organizations such as Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) are available to help these refugees. LiNK is an organization that provides aid and protection to North Korean refugees hiding in China by using a modern-day underground railroad through Southeast Asia to help them obtain freedom. In addition, LiNK is the only full time grassroots organization in North America that is committed to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea.
Here on campus, LiNK Texas is a student chapter of the organization that raises awareness of the humanitarian crisis and participates by rescuing refugees with fundraising money. “As a student organization, we try to raise awareness of the issue because a lot of people don’t know about what’s going on,” says Kevin DeLuca, LiNK President. “We try to shift the perception of North Korea as being the crazy, nuclear state, as into a humanitarian crisis going on there. People are starving.”
In fact, the main challenge that the club faces on campus is this negative perception of North Korea and its threats of bombing the United States. “Every once in a while, we’ll have someone who doesn’t understand what exactly we’re advocating and so they’ll think we support the North Korean government, which is totally not true,” says DeLuca. “But usually they’ll come up and we’ll explain it to them and they understand.”
The reason behind this negative view is because the United States and South Korea are technically still in war with North Korea. However, the Korean Armistice Agreement established a cease fire in 1953, insuring a “complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” The U.S. and North Korea currently have a rocky relationship due to North Korea’s persistence to obtain nuclear weapons and long range missiles. According to the New York Times, North Korea has had three nuclear tests since 2006, and developed long range missiles capable of striking targets thousands of miles away. There is no formal diplomatic relationships between North Korea and the U.S., but Sweden acts as the protecting power when it comes to consular matters.
A North Korean refugee rescue mission costs $2,500 and transportation to a free country for a refugee is $500, according to LiNK Texas. This means the club must do extensive fundraising. In addition, LiNK Texas says basic needs for refugees during their journey out to China costs $250, and $100 provides shelter for them. So far, the club has successfully been able to raise enough funds to rescue 4 refugees.
Currently, the club puts on Fried Oreo Fridays every Friday at Gregory Plaza from 11am-4pm where they sell fried Oreos and collect donations that go directly to fund rescue missions and refugee resettlement support. LiNK Texas also holds film screenings about North Korea and the refugees’ plights where donations are often taken. Custom made T-shirts by LiNK Texas designers are another means of gaining money, and the club has an online fundraising page where they ask friends and family to donate as much as they can. In fact, the club is currently the number one fundraising team in the country.
In addition to fundraising, the club holds collaborative human rights-promoting events, such as its biggest event, Awareness Day. At Awareness Day, LiNK Texas rents out Gregory Plaza where they put up big display boxes all over the plaza, and set up tables for T-shirts, bracelets and fried oreos. The purpose of the event is not only to raise funds, but to raise awareness about the North Korean refugee crisis.
“Many people, especially college students in Austin, Texas, don’t really know about the North Korean refugee crisis. So, Awareness Day is all about informing and teaching students about what is going on in North Korea and China,” said DeLuca. “We never plan to profit on Awareness Day, we expect to lose money (spending on paint, supplies, fried Oreos, etc), but both times we have done it we ended up making a lot of money in donations.”
This year, LiNK Texas raised $1,000 on Awareness Day, the most successful LiNK Texas event of all time. It was only the second time that the club held Awareness Day this semester, and they are currently planning the third Awareness Day for early next semester.
More than half of the club members are Korean and are devoted to helping the refugees. One club member by the name of Jane Lee has actually had one on one contact with some of the refugees while teaching English this past summer for Yeomyeoung School, a North Korean defectors school in South Korea. “I got to teach about 35 students in the school, and in my class there was a couple of students that got actual help from LiNK to get them to settle down in South Korea,” said Lee. “That’s where I first heard about LiNK and first got interested.”
As a native South Korean, Lee believes this topic is of great importance. “My grandpa wasn’t born in North Korea, but he actually lived there, and that made me think that I could have been born in North Korea and not South Korea and I could be in that spot and see my family dying of starvation,” said Lee. “I could not have a religion or basic stuff. Thinking of that, I feel like I do have to share my liberty and love to North Korea and that’s what makes me motivated to help them.”
While teaching at Yeomyeoung, Lee was able to hear heartbreaking, personal stories from her students. “I heard a lot of stories from my students who really suffered,” said Lee. “There were a couple of students who were sent back trying to escape, and that was not their first try. Several of them were detained in prison, they get tortured and have seen their mothers get executed.”
The club’s faculty advisor, Dr. Oppenheim, specializes in Asian Studies and believes this issue is of great importance as well. “It is always good, in my opinion, for student organizations to concern themselves with important issues in the world today, including this one,” said Oppenheim.
The future is already looking bright for LiNK Texas, as the club has grown in size. “We have about 25-30 members right now, which is actually pretty big for LiNK, since last semester we had maybe 10,” said DeLuca.
Further expansion and recognition is one of the club’s main goals for the future. “LiNK Texas hopes to gain in popularity and membership. We are already gaining a strong following because of our Fried Oreo Fridays, but rather than just piquing casual interest in our cause we would like to garner the support of dedicated members,” said DeLuca. “One of our biggest goals for next semester is to better engage our current members, and reach out to more students at UT in order to make LiNK Texas a more interactive, team-based group.”
You can find out more about LiNK Texas and stay up to date on the club’s upcoming events on its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/linktexas/