Photo caption: Danny Lee. Photo credit: CBS News.
University of Washington (UW) students recently learned about North Korean refugees from a perspective not normally given voice in mainstream media: that of a North Korean refugee.
On Thursday, March 7, the UW chapter of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding North Korean refugees, held an on-campus screening of the documentary “Danny From North Korea.” The 30-minute film deals with Korean refugee Danny Lee’s escape from North Korea to the U.S., outlining his family’s hardships during the North Korean famine of the 1990s.
“Because of the hardships I experienced in North Korea, I went to China,” Lee said in documentary. “In China, I found out about LiNK and through LiNK, I decided to go to North America.”
Lee’s widowed mother, who supported her family by harvesting and selling food in a market, traveled to China numerous times in 1997 to find other sources of income.
“[In China], my mom’s eyes for the first time were opened to the outside world, and to the lies she had been told,” Lee said.
When she did not return from China during one visit, Lee decided to flee the country and search for his mother. He was 17 at the time. “Danny in North Korea” shows the poignant reunion of Lee and his mother, his life in the U.S., and also documents his current work with LiNK.
While Lee was not actually in attendance, LiNK intern Mike Thompson shared his experience living with him in Torrance, Calif. after the film showing.
“[The other LiNK interns and I] got to spend time with him and through that time, we found out that he’s a real person,” he said. “He’s not a soldier or loyalist like the majority of North Koreans are portrayed. He’s just a regular guy that wants to follow his hopes and dreams.”
LiNK is greatly committed to shifting the perspective of North Korea among the general public. Since most discussions of North Korea involve political turmoil and nuclear weapons, the focus on the people under the regime is lost. LiNK intern Rachel Lewis explained that while discussion of North Korean politics is important, the public should also recognize the humanitarian aspect of the crisis. North Koreans under the regime are denied basic human rights, suffer chronic food shortages and poor public health care, for example.
In addition to heightening public awareness about this North Korea crisis, LiNK also raises funds for aiding potential refugees, helping North Korean expatriates escape from China, where they aren’t legally recognized as refugees and run a high risk of being captured and deported back to North Korea. The international grassroots organization utilizes a modern-day underground railroad through Southeast Asia to aid the refugee escape to countries where they are safe, and once resettled, LiNK helps refugees gain self-sufficiency through education and housing opportunities.
Last fall, UW student Nakbin Sung started the UW chapter of LiNK, a rescue team. First learning about LiNK’s efforts in his freshman yaer, Sung decided he couldn’t wait until after graduation to get involved; he started the UW Rescue Team with five of his friends.
Right now, one of their primary goals is to raise $2,500, which is enough to bring one refugee from North Korea into resettlement in the U.S. or South Korea.
Since its inception, the rescue team at UW has held events in collaboration with the Korean Students Association to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis in North Korea. To get involved, Sung urges Korean-American students to simply educate themselves.
“A lot of Korean students don’t understand or care any more because they’ve been hearing this rhetoric for so long,” he said. “They hear these stories from the media, from their parents, from their friends. As they hear them, they become indifferent. That’s one of the most dangerous things.”
So far, LiNK has aided 129 refugees through sheltering and resettlement support. But Lee in the film, who’s currently working toward a GED in Torrance, said much more work remains.
“I may be free, but I still have family and friends living in North Korea,” Lee said. “Until they have their freedom, until all people are free, none of us are.”
To support LiNK’s humanitarian efforts, the organization encourages people to donate monthly, attend its fundraisers and purchase their organization merchandise. To learn more or donate, please visit libertyinnorthkorea.org.