For defectors, escaping from North Korea is only the beginning of a long and perilous odyssey towards permanent resettlement in South Korea or elsewhere. The overwhelming majority of defectors start their journey by crossing the Chinese border, stepping foot into a land where they risk arrest and repatriation should they ever be caught. Their status as illegal immigrants makes them vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, such as forced labor, human trafficking and prostitution.
One organization helping defectors on the ground and smuggling them out of China is Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a non-governmental organization headquartered in the United States. We had the pleasure of interviewing its Director of Research & Strategy, Sokeel Park, who talked to us about the dangers defectors face in China and LiNK’s mission to provide them with much needed relief and support.
Sokeel Park worked for the Korean government and the United Nations before joining LiNK’s Seoul office, where he is charge of research and global media outreach. He belongs to the community of Global Shapers of the World Economic Forum and has lectured about North Korea and LiNK’s operations around the world. Sokeel Park holds a Bachelor in Psychology from the University of Warwick and an M.A. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Unfortunately, the Chinese government makes it illegal to provide assistance to North Korean refugees […]. That’s part of their policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans who have crossed the border illegally and sending them back to North Korea. And so our work there has to basically contravene with Chinese law, but there’s no other way of doing it. That humanitarian assistance is crucial, and in an ideal world it could happen legally and above board, but if you wanted to operate legally then you couldn’t help North Korean refugees, and you couldn’t provide humanitarian assistance. In the long term, we would of course want to see Chinese policy change, but [it] is pretty entrenched on this issue at this time. And we don’t see a realistic window of opportunity for that to change […].
The interview was recorded on February 2nd in Seoul.