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Former North Korean citizens share stories of defection, hope on U of I campus


LiNK Advocacy Fellow Harry holds a microphone and smiles as he recalls a memory from his childhood in North Korea. Harry spoke at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus on Oct. 1 alongside three other North Korean defectors. Hannah Lonergan

A group of defectors from North Korea shared their stories Oct. 1 at the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. 

Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, is an international organization that advocates for North Korean people.

The group provided a forum for four defectors, also known by LiNK as Advocacy Fellows, to speak on their journeys from leaving their home country to eventually traveling the U.S. as representatives for the people of North Korea.

LiNK’s growth manager, Sarah Kim, was one of the organizers of Saturday’s event. She said it’s important for North Korean defectors to speak up about their experiences. 

“We know people who have received death threats for sharing their stories with the outside world and revealing what life is like inside the country,” Kim said. “So, when a North Korean person decides to share their story with the world, it is one of the most radical things they can do.”

LiNK has helped more than 1,300 refugees escape the country through secret rescue routes, which it calls a “modern-day underground railroad.” 

The route runs 3,000 miles through northern China to southeast Asia and ends once a refugee has been safely relocated to South Korea or the U.S.

In addition to the rescue and relocation of defectors, LiNK’s mission is to change  the narrative surrounding the North Korean people.

According to its website, the group wants people to associate North Koreans with more than just nuclear weapons and the actions of their government.

Harry, an advocacy fellow who goes by a pseudonym to protect his identity, said North Koreans need more supportive representation in mainstream media.

“Even if there’s just one person or a few people who will lift us up, it can give us hope and courage to share our voice and to have confidence in our identities,” Harry said.

Harry left North Korea in 2013 with his mother. He was 13 years old.

“My days were happy,” Harry said while recalling memories of his time in North Korea as a child.

Harry also added that the most difficult part of defection in his experience was leaving his family behind. Though he and his mother made it out of North Korea, his older sister did not.

“She got tortured for four months because of our escape from North Korea," he said. "Basically, the North Korean government wanted her to confess herself as guilty, but she continually insists that she’s not guilty.

“They’re going to have to keep torturing her until she confesses, but she’d never do that. Eventually she got a mental illness because of the torture and got released by the government. For me and my mom, it’s really difficult to accept,” Harry said.

Harry also said that he wishes he could re-enter the country to help care for his sister, who now deals with her trauma alone in North Korea. 

He has no safe way of communicating with her from outside the country.

The advocacy fellows speaking with Harry at the event had similar stories of loss, but all shared the ways that they have grown since leaving their home country.

Harry now studies political science and diplomacy at Sogang University. He hopes to use his education to continue to advocate for North Koreans in need.

Those who want to support LiNK’s cause can donate, fundraise, volunteer and start their own rescue team. 

More information can be found at