Until 2013, its image on Google Earth was nothing but a featureless blob. Its Internet reportedly only has 28 websites. Its totalitarian threatened violent retaliation over a James Franco and Seth Rogen comedy flick. With the mystery, terror and surreal rumors shrouding North Korea, it is easy to lose sight of the very real citizens suffering there. Luckily, organizations like Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) act as crucial advocates for the people of North Korea, both by carrying out rescue missions for refugees and by emphasizing the challenges facing North Koreans and their potential to create change. Here on campus, the student organization LiNK at Vassar represents one of the many chapters raising funds to support LiNK’s mission. Their most recent event, entitled “VC Munchies: Study Week Edition,” occurred on May 14, just in time to provide sustenance for diligent students preparing for finals.
For the Study Week event, LiNK at Vassar offered steamed pork, chicken and veggie buns, as well as sweet red bean buns, for delivery from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The organization provided direct delivery to all dorms and senior housing, the Old Bookstore, the College Center, the Retreat, the library and the Bridge Building. Orders were processed through a Google form, with buns costing $1 or $2 and payment via cash or Venmo.
“We got a lot of orders and it turned out really well,” remarked 2017-2018 Secretary of LiNK Sooyeon Baek ’20. Indeed, the snacks were so popular that two of the bun varieties were sold out by 12:30. 2016-2017 Vice President of LiNK Kelly Yu ’17 specified in an email, “This year, we raised about the same amount as we always do, so I would consider that successful.”
Baek noted that the organization tries to integrate Korean culture into its fundraising events, which occur throughout the school year. Last September, LiNK kicked off the semester by tabling with steamed buns for sale in the College Center. Then, starting in early February, they offered a special Valentine’s Day event in which students could personalize a Valentine-gram and have it delivered to the recipient’s door along with a box of Pocky. Later that month, LiNK offered a benefit concert in the Aula with a variety of performers, including a K-Pop dance group, a capella groups Home Brewed and BAM and comedians Evelyn Frick ’19 and Bianca Barragan ’19, both of Indecent Exposure. During the concert, LiNK set up a benefit flea market with donated clothing. In April, the organization partnered with BurgerFi, establishing a time frame in which mentioning LiNK with any order would give 10 percent of the purchase to aiding North Korean refugees. In addition, LiNK was part of the Night Market in November, an event with food vendors and music organized by the Asian Students’ Alliance in collaboration with 12 student groups and intended to emulate the atmosphere of East Asian night markets.
Funds raised by LiNK at Vassar join the pool of earnings from LiNK groups at other colleges, which are known as Rescue Teams and work to finance the goals of LiNK’s headquarters in California. According to Rescue Teams Manager Sarah Palmer, LiNK emerged out of the 2004 Korean American Students Conference at Yale, where a documentary screening about the North Korean refugee crisis spurred around 40 universities to form advocacy groups. After a largely unsuccessful period of focusing on topdown policy change, LiNK relocated its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to California in 2009 and began working to rescue refugees the following year.
As Palmer recalled, “We took a more grassroots approach by doing tours, engaging with campus groups, funding refugee rescues and working more directly with North Korean people.” As of 2017, LiNK’s website reports that the organization has assisted in 618 refugee rescues. Factoring in the cost of basic needs, transportation, shelter, rescue fees, emergencies and resettlement, each rescue comes at a price of $3,000. The rescue process begins after North Korean refugees cross into China, Palmer explained. LiNK staff connect with them via the organization’s partners on the ground and help them escape through a route traversing approximately 3,000 miles. “It’s essentially a modern-day Underground Railroad,” she commented.
Once refugees are placed in South Korea or the United States, they have to contend with adjusting to a new lifestyle. According to LiNK’s website, the organization provides the refugees it assists with support in the form of counseling, healthcare and financial aid and translation services. Palmer reported, “Once refugees resettle in South Korea or the United States, many are able to call their families and friends and even send money back home through brokers.”
She described this flow of cash and information as a black market—a phenomenon that has existed in North Korea since the famine of the 1990s. “They are sending 10 to 15 million dollars every year back to their families, creating more stability, less reliance on the government and more market activity,” said Palmer. “[North Koreans] are able to know through these phone calls that their family members are okay and hear from the outside world. It’s making a big change in the mindset of people in North Korea.” Palmer maintained that while LiNK does work to create media and campaigns to bring attention to the issues, the most substantial positive effects come from empowering North Koreans to create change. “We really believe that the North Korean people will be the ones to achieve liberty in our lifetime,” she said. Grassroots efforts from students and communities across the globe are indispensable in achieving this goal, and LiNK’s website notes the presence of over 275 Rescue Teams in 16 countries.
Palmer suggested, “If there’s not a Rescue Team at your school, starting one is definitely something that can make a huge difference for the the North Korean refugees you’re fundraising for, but you might also be the first person or group to bring attention to the issue on your campus.” She added, “You’re helping an individual, but you’re also becoming part of history.” Alternatively, students can engage with LiNK by reaching out to family and friends to raise funds, or by joining the organization as an intern.
While Palmer celebrates LiNK’s successes and explores potential for the future in California, Vassar’s 2017-2018 LiNK President Ashley Kim ’19 does the same in Poughkeepsie. “This past year has been a very successful one, and we want to continue to put out new events and spread awareness,” said Kim in an email. “I think rather than doing something differently, we would like to focus on continuing and magnifying the upward trend we’ve had in the past few years.”
According to Yu, such efforts have recently included greater participation in LiNK’s mission outside of club events. As she reflected, “Our EB this year talked about being more active in refugee efforts and encouraged our members to be involved with a lot of on and off campus rallies and organizations.” In terms of the positive direction in which the club is moving, Kim specified, “We’ve had more outreach in terms of community, and even though we’re a small student organization, I’ve been seeing a lot more people who have heard of LiNK and more people asking about LiNK.” Yu also emphasized this movement toward inclusivity. She remarked, “We have been focusing a lot on making sure we are branching out from our immediate friend groups. In doing so, I think we have been able to make out events and tabling sessions more effective.”
Results of this successful publicity include recruiting first-year students like Baek, who prides LiNK on providing an accepting atmosphere. “I want [people] to know that LiNK isn’t just an organization for Koreans helping Koreans or Asians helping Koreans,” she said, a policy reflected in the makeup of the 2017-18 Exec Board. Baek noted, “Our Vice President and our Media Chair are not Asians. Everybody is welcome; we’re all working towards one good cause.”