I’m sure that some North Korean refugees try to motivate their loved ones still in North Korea to escape by sharing information about the outside world. I am humbled to learn that I have become part of that information.
One of the refugees participating in theTeach North Korean Refugees project I co-founded with Lee Eun-koo recently told me that she has been trying to convince her sister to escape from North Korea. “Come to South Korea,” she has been telling her. “You can even study English for free with as many teachers as you want. It is because of a nice American who wants to help North Koreans.”
North Koreans are warned from a young age about evil blood-thirsty American beasts. It is wonderful that I am being cited as a reason for a North Korean to flee to freedom.
Other North Koreans in North Korea have heard about that “nice American.” Last summer, a North Korean refugee interning at Radio Free Chosun did a shortwave radio broadcast into North Korea about me. That could have gotten me on North Korea’s enemies list, or bumped me up a few spots, but it is rewarding to know that someone in North Korea could be inspired to flee because of my activities. I would prefer to have the regime target rather than praise or positively cite me.
How quickly things change. Five years ago, I was ignorant of the scope of the human rights crisis in North Korea and had no idea what to do about what I did know. My life changed in early 2012 when about 30 North Korean refugees caught in China were going to be sent back to North Korea. I began organizing “meet-up” sessions to attend protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul. Then on March 1, 2012, I was inspired by Prof. Park Sun-young’s hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy to protest the looming repatriation.
Prof. Park was sitting in a tent across the street from the embassy. I approached her and told her that I was going to get more deeply involved. Not realizing it was a life-focusing moment for me, Prof. Park did the equivalent of patting me on the head and saying, “That’s nice to hear, dear.” A month later, we protested together in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.
I later became the International Adviser to the Mulmangcho School for North Korean refugees founded by that lady in the tent. Prof. Park asked me if I could teach English to the children, but I declined. Even when I was employed as an English teacher, I wasn’t a good one. Instead, I suggested to her that I could try to recruit volunteers who, I hoped, would relish such an opportunity. For at least one year, I told her, I would be a “magnet” to the school attracting volunteers. That was almost three years ago.
In the book “The Tipping Point,” gadfly Malcolm Gladwell writes that there are three kinds of people who share information. One, “connectors” are the type of people who always know somebody who knows somebody. Two, “mavens” are the people who know a lot about a particular topic. Three, salesmen are the people who can persuade others of something.
I like those three categories, but my slight difference (perhaps without a distinction) with Gladwell’s lineup is “salesman.” I don’t care if people are convinced by me ― I’m fine with them knowing about my activities. Instead of being a “salesman,” I try to be a magnet for a cause.
In addition to North Korean refugees, I have heard from our volunteers how inspired they have been to have participated in the Teach North Korean Refugees project. Some have gone on to make documentaries, join other NGOs, and inform others about the crisis in North Korea. Most recently, Cherie Yang, a North Korean refugee who lives in America, contacted me to tell me that she had been inspired by my podcasts with North Korean refugee Park Yeon-mi. It reminded Yang that after escaping North Korea to freedom that had promised herself that she would try to help North Koreans escaping to freedom. Inspired, she has now joined my company as a volunteer intern and as a participant in TNKR.
It now usually takes North Korean refugees about two to three years to get to South Korea or a third country after escaping from North Korea and through China. I will never get to China to rescue North Korean refugees, but perhaps the day will come that I will meet someone who escaped North Korea or China after hearing about me. For now, I’m thrilled to know that I have been cited as a reason for North Korean refugees to escape to freedom.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu.