Students fight for freedom in North Korea
After spending a year in South Korea after high school, senior Dena Nederhood discovered her new love for the Korean culture growing in an unexpected setting: Calvin College.
More specifically, her hunger to learn more about and participate more in Asian affairs would channel itself into a little-known organization here on campus: Liberty in North Korea (LiNK).
After she joined the Calvin community, Nederhood found that the members of LiNK helped her understand the issues in North Korea that before had seemed muddled.
“When I lived in Korea, I got to know a lot more about North Korea than I had known previously,” Nederhood explains. “Before it was all nuclear bombs and crazy people in my mind, and once I really got to know South Korean culture, that was an open door to North Korean culture and all the suffering going on there.”
The current situation in North Korea seems to bewilder most people, as it did Nederhood. What exactly is going on? Who is Kim Il-Jung? What does it mean that people are being oppressed? Is there anything we can do about it from over here?
LiNK is a North American grassroots organization based in Los Angeles whose members seek to answer these questions, exposing Americans to the reality of the North Korean crisis and aiming to do something about it.
“LiNK’s two main goals are raising awareness and raising funds to help rescue and resettle North Korean refugees hiding in China,” junior Soeyeon Shin, Calvin LiNK president, said.
Because of the impenetrable security along the border between North and South Korea, many North Koreans escape over the northern border into China. Because of political agreements, however, these fugitives find little rest once they’ve reached China.
“People are trying to flee the hostile environment of North Korea, but China recognizes North Koreans as illegal immigrants rather than refugees,” Shin said. “So if they get caught, they usually get sent to a concentration camp back in North Korea, or they’re sold into the Chinese sex trade.”
By raising funds, LiNK helps provide protection and aid to these North Korean refugees currently in hiding. But in order to raise these funds, LiNK must first raise awareness.
“A big issue with North Korea is that people hear about it in the news and hear about nuclear warfare, but they’re not really aware of the real tragedies that are going on,” Nederhood said. “And if they are it’s really abstract and impersonal.”
LiNK actualizes and personalizes these tragedies by sending “nomads,” or LiNK interns, to various parts of the United States to share real stories of North Korean refugees. By bringing the reality to the surface, LiNK hopes to develop strategies to promote long-term change in North Korea.
These efforts have led to Calvin’s involvement with LiNK, and since Calvin made LiNK a subgroup of the Social Justice Coalition in 2010, members have succeeded in raising enough money to help rescue two North Korean refugees out of China.
“$2,500 is needed to rescue one North Korean refugee,” Nederhood said. “That money goes to providing documents, transportation costs, food and lodging and resettlement fees.”
Calvin has put on fundraisers like bake sales and Valentine’s Day “choco-gram” sales to raise the money. This year, members hope to raise enough money to rescue two more refugees.
Shin said her favorite part of being a member of LiNK is seeing direct results of its work.
“When we raise enough money to rescue a refugee,” Shin said, “LiNK headquarters back in California sends us a post about the refugees we’re helping, with their names and basic information, and we can actually see the results of our efforts. It’s really rewarding to look back at the end of the year and think, ‘Wow, we helped her.’”
LiNK meets every Wednesday at 7 p.m. to discuss current news, pray and plan events for Calvin and the greater Grand Rapids area.
Through meetings and events, members hope to encourage the American people to keep themselves informed.
“I think it can be really tempting for people to dismiss issues like this as a Korean issue or as an Asian issue and not really take it to heart as a global issue,” Nederhood said. “Do a Google search, keep yourself informed as a way of staying connected. It’s our responsibility as a people with the means to know about global news.”
LiNK members do not expect all students to share their same passion for North Korea, but they do hope that their presence on campus will succeed in raising awareness and sparking conversation.
“As a people who have freedom and who have privileges, we have to be willing to recognize the lack of freedom in other places,” Nederhood said, “and not to guilt-trip ourselves — we should be overjoyed and so grateful for the freedom we have, but we shouldn’t be taking advantage of it.”