There’s more to North Korean affairs than Kim Jong-Un and Dennis Rodman, and Belmont’s Liberty in North Korea chapter aims to shift the focus from power-hungry leaders to empowering the people.
“Especially in our culture when we think of North Korea we think of things like the ‘Interview’ movie made last year. Sometimes, North Korea seems like a parody of political systems and ideologies,” said Kyle Minardi, Belmont LINK vice president. “But there are real people that are affected by what’s going on in that country, and when they make the decision to leave that country, which is huge, they face a lot of difficult struggles trying to assimilate into a non-North Korean society.”
Belmont added a LINK chapter or “rescue team” this fall semester to raise funds and awareness about refugees fleeing North Korea.
“We don’t have anything like this at all on Belmont’s campus, much less really into North Korea or the Asian continent in general,” said Hannah Stratos, Belmont’s LINK president. “So, I thought we should bring this to Belmont and help students here who tend to have sort of a bubble mindset to think about things that are outside of themselves.”
The educational piece of LINK will function as one of the organization’s main services, said Alex St. Dennis, Belmont’s LINK financial officer.
“Since North Korea is so isolated both from the inside out and the outside in, not that many people realize what’s going on in North Korea, much less give it much attention,” he said.
Both St. Dennis and Minardi joined LINK the summer of 2015 when Stratos mentioned the beginning of a chapter via social media, but Stratos’s interest in North Korean refugees originated in her strong familial connections to South Korea.
Her mother was adopted from South Korea, and Stratos lived in Asia in the summers of 2007, 2008 and 2010 with her uncle. Between personally witnessing the demilitarized zone along the North and South Korean borders and her family’s roots in South Korea, the cause resonated deeply with her, she said.
“I realized that could’ve been my mom, that could’ve been her siblings or her family members that are going through these horrific journeys to try and escape an oppressive regime,” said Stratos.
North Koreans have limited rights and do not have freedom of religion or speech. Any dissenting citizens have the potential to be subjected to public executions or political imprisonment in one of the five camps in North Korea, and up to three generations of family members can also face punishment, said Stratos.
Hearing stories of the collective punishment in his research that affects not only a refugee but also a refugee’s family impacted St. Dennis’s involvement in the organization the most, he said.
“Even though she’s free in South Korea, she knows that her family is probably suffering in labor camps in North Korea because of her. Even though you may have escaped, they may still have this hold on you,” said St. Dennis.
Even refugees that reach North America do not share their stories in fear that the regime in North Korea will discover them and punish family members or force their return, said Stratos.
Once a refugee escapes North Korea, various challenges still exist. Refugees may cross the border into China, but China often deports them back to North Korea. Often, North Korean women in China are sold into sex trafficking. Even if refugees successfully seek safety in Thailand or China, the obstacles of differing dialects and social norms present a tremendous challenge, said Stratos.
The money received through the Belmont rescue team’s fundraisers will go directly into resettlement, English, leadership and awareness programs for the refugees, according to LINK’s website.
“The spread of information is really picking up there. So, the people are becoming more aware of their state in relation to the rest of the world in how behind they are and how different they are,” Stratos said. “So, that’s fueling a lot of rebellion type attitudes and a lot more refugees. They say that the sentiment in North Korea is turning away from the regime.“ Despite the sway in thinking, true change will require the continual support from outside organizations and perhaps military or policy action by other countries, said Stratos “LINK believes that the people have an incredible potential,” said Stratos.
Belmont’s LINK rescue team will host its first bake sale to raise funds for North Korean refugees on Friday with both American and Korean desserts.