By Laura Gossman

Author’s note: For the past couple of months, Fieldnotes Magazine has been highlighting a variety of organizations that participated in the Praxis Accelerator Program. While each of them offers a unique solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems, Liberty in North Korea (or LiNK) has taken on one of the riskiest, most unspoken issues in our world today. After interviewing LiNK’s CEO and president, Hannah Song, I was not surprised that they were voted one of the top three presenters at the end of their Praxis fellowship and awarded a prize of $20,000.

Hannah Song

Hannah Song: “freedom in North Korea will come from its people, not its politics”

Liberty in North Korea is a nonprofit organization that is redefining North Korea by drawing attention to its people in need while rescuing and providing resettlement support to North Korean refugees and pursing and end to the North Korea crisis. It is the only full-time grassroots organization in North America devoted to the North Korean human rights and humanitarian crises. LiNK provides protection and aid to North Korean refugees hiding in China and, utilizing a modern-day underground railroad through Southeast Asia, rescues refugees and helps them reach freedom. LiNK works globally to redefine public perception of North Korea, shifting attention away from politics and onto the plight of individuals, and provides a way for concerned citizens to come alongside the North Korean people and help bring about positive change. LiNK also works to develop people-focused strategies that will have the potential to promote change inside North Korea in the long term.

LiNK rescue van

LiNK rescue van

LiNK began in 2004 as a grassroots response to the human rights and refugee crisis. A group of college students became aware of the situation at a national conference. Shocked that they had not heard about conditions in North Korea before, they returned to their respective campuses and began LiNK chapters, raising awareness in their local communities and gathering funds to support North Korean refugees hiding in China.

President and CEO Hannah Song and vice president Justin Wheeler “re-founded” the organization at the beginning of 2009 with a new mission and strategy. Hannah began volunteering for LiNK in 2004 while working in the corporate sector. She then went full-time with LiNK in 2006 and took charge of the organization at the end of 2008. Justin worked with Invisible Children for four years and then started his own organization focused on the North Korea issue. The two met in late 2008 and decided to merge their organizations and work together.

The major impetus for both leaders getting involved with this issue and with LiNK was the low level of support, awareness, and attention there was for the horrific suffering of enforced poverty, human rights abuses, atrocities inside the political prison camps, etc., inflicted upon 24 million North Koreans by its repressive regime. Like many others in the Korean diaspora, Hannah has family in North Korea. She looks forward to the day when the North Korean people achieve their liberty. She hopes one day she might be able to find her family.

Hannah and Justin faced numerous obstacles in the re-launch of LiNK. There was an obvious lack of public awareness of the actual conditions in North Korea, and strong perceptions, largely perpetuated by the media, that North Korea was simply about nuclear weapons and the Kim family.

As LiNK works to shift the public’s attention beyond politics and onto people, they are beginning to see a growing movement of support for the North Korean people as they work to empower them to fulfill their potential and promote positive changes inside their own country. They do this by sharing the story of the refugees that are being resettled. One unique way is through their Nomads program, which sends young leaders across the country to address a variety of groups.

Getting the word out about what the North Korean people

Getting the word out about the North Korean people

Through their experience with Praxis, Hannah and Justin were given the resources they needed to overcome barriers to their mission. First, they began to provide direct assistance to North Korean refugees. They also increased their storytelling to the world providing a different narrative on North Korea than the one typically encountered through the media. LiNK also started empowering concerned citizens with tangible opportunities to effect change and directly support North Koreans. For example, one can fund a rescue mission and help North Koreans escape from hiding, provide assistance with their resettlement in new countries like South Korea and the US or raise awareness in local communities.

Helping prepare refugees for resettlement

Helping prepare refugees for resettlement

LiNK believes in the North Korean people—they have shown incredible resilience and strength as they face tremendous challenges inside their country. While the situation in North Korea may seem “impossible” or impervious to change, they see important changes happening inside the country being driven at the grassroots level by the North Korean people themselves. The opportunity on the outside is to empower and support the people inside the country in order to accelerate these changes and create pressure for change from the bottom up. By raising awareness and shifting public perceptions, they are building up a movement of vital support for the North Korean people.  

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and the mother of newborn Benjamin.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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