Beyond Politics: Connecting with the North Korean Community

April 17th, 2016

Photo caption: LiNK’s English Tutoring and Cultural Exchange Program

By: Matt Walters (Fulbright ETA 2015-16)

The subject of sensationalist buzz, alarming news reports, and controversial comedy films, North Korea receives a great deal of attention that often obscures the plights of ordinary North Koreans. Many within Fulbright Korea , however, have come to look beyond the face-value images they are inundated with in order to make a positive impact within this unique, often disadvantaged, community. From larger and older programs like Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) to newer ones, such as Running 4 Resettlement, plenty of opportunities for involvement exist. These are stories of how grantees have made North Korea an integral piece of their time in South Korea.

Current Fulbright Korea junior researcher Joyce Kim has been conducting her research on Liberty in North Korea. Founded in 2004, the nongovernmental organization has made great strides in rescuing and resettling North Korean refugees hiding in North Korea. As Kim explains, “LiNK’s vision is to work with the North Korean people to accelerate change to North Korea.” Kim further outlines four main initiatives of the program: rescue, resettlement, empowerment, and “changing the narrative.” LiNK has rescued and resettled over 400 refugees, but also provides education and career information to further assist the defectors. In addition, the program’s over 250 worldwide teams work to, as Kim describes it, “shift [media] focus from the high politics to North Korea’s changing society and the people’s potential as agents of change.”

In addition, several Fulbright Korea ETAs are involved in NKD, or the North Korean Defector program. As a part of this program, ETAs both mentor and teach English to North Korean students. Nikki Brueggeman, a current ETA in Jeonju, comments that even her short time participating in NKD has broadened her perspective.

“When we look at North Korea, I think we tend to…overlook the human aspects,” she says. “But working with [the students] has helped me see that they are children first. They love stickers, they love to color, and [love to] laugh. It has made me see North Koreans in a new light.”


Photo caption: At the starting line of the Kim Dae Jung Marathon

Three-year participant and regional coordinator Cait Cronin offers a similar viewpoint to Brueggeman. She notes the tremendous contrast between the attitudes of her high school students she regularly teaches—at one of Korea’s top four high schools—and the North Korean student she has mentored for the past three years.

“For [my high school students], understandably, class is often viewed as an obstacle [or] a memorizable soundbite; for my resettler student, however, class is only ever an opportunity,” she says.

She finds the growth and progress of her mentee particularly inspiring. Cronin adds, “When I visited Pyongyang in 2014, I saw students using computers as bookstands because there wasn’t enough power to access even the country’s domestic internet service—and that was the top 1% elite.” Such powerful images and anecdotes point to the continued importance of NKD as an essential program.

Cronin also leads another program called Running 4 Resettlement, or R4R. The program, while not officially affiliated with Fulbright, has seen great success since its conception two years ago by ETA Eric Horvath. The program draws inspiration from NKD, and aims to contribute donations to Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR). NKHR aims to allow North Korean refugees in China to exit the country safely. Those interested can sign up to run in the Kim Dae-Jung Peace Marathon on Sunday, June 12, all the while fundraising to support NKHR. Even those not interested in running may still donate to help the cause. Further details can be found at R4R’s website.

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