Interview with LiNK: An NGO that wants to ‘End the Crisis’

September 11th, 2012

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is an NGO focused on both increasing awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea and bringing North Korean refugees out through the ‘underground railroad’ and providing resettlement support.  With a million dollar plus budget, they’re now one of the major players to focus on North Korea in the United States.

Concentrating mainly on outreach and money-raising activities in universities across North America, their viral social media campaigns, films, t-shirts and scarves all seek to draw attention to what they describe as the “North Korea Crisis”.  Having had much success in introducing young people to North Korea, through their fundraising activities the organization has also assisted approximately 100 refugees since early 2010.

But while LiNK has enjoyed much success in its efforts to draw attention to what it labels as a “crisis” (in a manner some say is similar to KONY 2012), others disagree with the notion that the situation there represents anything but.  On the contrary, some figures like B.R. Myers suggest that the regime still enjoys a surprising level of support, warning that NGO rhetoric can be overblown when it comes to North Korea:

 “Now nobody tried to bribe their way back into the Soviet Union, or back into East Germany, so I would warn you against taking the hyperbole of a lot of these North Korean refugee NGOs seriously. They like to talk about the “underground railroad” that is helping North Korean migrants to safety.  Well I don’t know of any slaves bribing their way back onto the plantation, so we need to realize that this is a country that survives not by dint of repressiveness alone, but because it is able to inspire its people still.”

To address some of these issues and to see what extent organizations like LiNK battles with such potential pitfalls, NK News spoke to Sokeel Park, Research and Strategy Analyst at LiNK, to explain further what his organization does and how it hopes to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans.

NK News: What’s your overall assessment of the human rights and food situation in North Korea under Kim Jong-un? Have things got any better or any worse, or is there a status quo remaining? What are your two cents on that?  

I think that the only evidence of change in the food security situation we have, independent of the reports that have come out (of which you have the annual reports on food – and some of the weather conditions), are just from open sources. There were reports very early on that the situation got worse temporarily because of restrictions around the Kim Jong-il mourning period, restrictions on markets, increased propaganda sessions, mandatory events around the mourning period; but apart from that, the only evidence we really have of change is in the area of border region security. So that includes, again on both sides, crackdowns, increase in physical security, and changes in the way they operate border security. There have reportedly been changes to the incentive structures for border guards so we hear that there are border guards who are double-crossing people by taking the bribe money to get them across and then still arresting them and handing them in because if they turn in a certain number of attempted defectors they get a promotion or other incentive. Yeah, so there are changes in levels of security and the way things are organized and that’s having an effect on the number of people able to come out. Apart from that, they seem to be increasing security, for example increasing the jamming of Chinese mobile phone signals in the border regions and increasing surveillance and restrictions on general movement in the border regions, increasing the check points and generally trying to get a better grip on the border regions.

NK News: A large point of your work focuses on raising awareness on the North Korea “crisis”, how would you define the “crisis” that North Korea is currently experiencing?  

A good question. I don’t know if I have a snappy sound-bite answer to that one, but it’s not just a human rights crisis. One of the difficult things about this situation is that it’s human rights combined with humanitarian issues, throw in a whole bunch of security issues that take agenda priority for major powers around the world, including the U.S. and China, the human rights factor is inextricably tied up with humanitarian issues like the food security situation, and obviously the whole thing is very highly politicized as well. So I guess we could say it’s a complex crisis.

T Shirts are one way LiNK raise awareness with younger audiences

NK News: “Crisis” is obviously such a strong word – is there a risk that the use of the word “crisis” might contribute to a simplistic understanding of the on the ground situation?

I see what you’re saying. I think the word “crisis” is used to indicate the level of importance of this issue and indicate the level of danger the people involved are facing. I appreciate that some people might say that the issues in North Korea are chronic and systemic and that the word “crisis” points to short-term type problems, and some would say that a “chronic crisis” is an oxymoron. The word “crisis” for me conveys the gravity of the situation. For instance if your community hadn’t had sufficient food for a long time and you were severely malnourished, you’d probably think it was a crisis situation. I don’t think anyone is trying to simplify the problems by using the word crisis.

NK News: Part of the message one gets from the LiNK website is that your organization is making a concerted effort to “redefine the North Korea crisis”, what’s the motivation behind that “redefinition”?  

As you know the main focus especially in North America is on the security issues, the nuclear issues, the regional security issues, the regime leadership. That’s what the international media focuses on mostly and that’s what governments focus on mostly. If you ask the average person around the world what they know about North Korea, it’s probably nuclear weapons, security issues and Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. It’s not the North Korean people themselves. So our focus in trying to redefine the North Korean crisis is to shift focus away from those high politics facets like the leadership and security issues, towards the people themselves, and the challenges the people face. Increasing attention on and concern for the North Korean people will bring more resources and efforts to this area, and we believe that that is necessary to bring forward change in this whole issue.

SHiFT is a new LiNK campaign to raise awareness across N. America

NK News: And you obviously do a very good job in raising awareness among students, what’s the end goal with that effort?

I think that there are several reasons, and it’s not necessarily that we’re just reaching out to students, but we do see this as a long-term project and by the way I think that engaging with a younger demographic is something that South Korean groups look at too. As a long-term project it’s important to get people of all ages interested in this issue and get them on board and get them to come alongside the North Korean people, and get them to understand the challenges the North Korean people face. People have to know about the issue in the first place to support the North Korean people, so it has to start with awareness. Then they can put in their time, resources and their own efforts. They might even go and work for an organization that is focusing on this issue or a similar issue, and they might join us in working towards our mission to whatever extent they can be involved. At a government policy level, the more people understand and are concerned about the challenges that the North Korean people face then that can also play through to affect policy priorities as well. There’s a longer term view as well, as no matter how North Korea changes in the future, and it could go down several pathways, there will be a need for understanding of and a listening to the concerns of the North Korean people, and in fact that could become even more important in the future depending on how North Korea changes. There’s no better time to start building that awareness than now.

NK News: Do you offer you any signposting to the people you raise awareness with?  For example, beyond the university campus, things supporters can do like put pressure on Congressmen or other elected leaders on the issue?

Yeah, in terms of policy advocacy we’ve been involved with various campaigns in the past, but we do not currently focus a lot of our efforts into advocacy on specific policies. As we recognize the constraints, lack of leverage and lack of realistic policy options that even the U.S. Government has, we have to be strategic in the ways that we as an NGO try to mobilize people.

NK News: So you are saying that those who get introduced to North Korea through your organization are not given any action points to try and change the situation?

We raise awareness on the situation in the first place and get people interested in situation of the North Korean people themselves, and of course provide avenues for people to get involved and support our work and our mission using their time, efforts and resources. Apart from that it’s up to individuals where they want to take it and if they want to take it in different directions. We’re not going to dictate a whole pathway for this movement or something like that.

NK News: While you are doing much work in raising awareness with younger groups, how does your work engage the leaders of today? So, people who are very familiar with the situation, with those within academia, the think-tank world, are you working in anyway to catalyze them?  

We regularly meet and are in contact with people working on the issue directly or indirectly, including North Korea experts or people who may be naive experts – experts in other areas who can bring their expertise to this issue – we meet for instance with government officials, politicians, think-tankers, academics, journalists, North Korean refugees themselves, whether they be high profile or people with an interesting story, and we try to learn from them first and foremost. We listen and learn from them and get their perspectives and also share our own perspectives and own approaches and insights on this issue.

LiNK’s New Campaign to help end the North Korea “Crisis” – SHiFT 

NK News: What are some of your insights or strategies end to the North Korea “crisis”? What’s your core approach on dealing with the issue?

We see great value in helping refugees come out through China so that they can resettle in countries where they can be safe. It’s massively important for the individual’s life concerned. There’s also a more macro-level effect, as I’m sure you know, in that they act as a bridge population. A lot of the North Korean refugees come from the border regions and so it is relatively easier for them to be in contact with family members, even friends, who are back inside the country. Sometimes in direct contact by illegal Chinese mobile phones, sometimes they’re in contact via brokers, and they are filtering in information and money, which is already helping to change the situation on the ground. It’s beginning to prize open the country and more and more North Koreans are learning about the outside world through that channel as well as other channels, so helping North Korean refugees is important at the micro but also at the macro levels. The more refugees that can be helped, the more they can be helped to have successful resettlement experiences and to land on their feet, the more of a help they are likely to be to this issue. Of course its completely up to them what they do when they arrive in countries where they can resettle safely, but a lot of them naturally want to engage in activities that are helpful to the issue. As well as helping to send information in, refugees are also bringing out valuable knowledge and insights on the current situation inside the country and are helping us to understand the grassroots changes that are happening inside North Korea, which is crucial as we move forward with developing our strategy.

Another thing is in terms of our analysis of the situation, we don’t see much prospect for change at the high politics level. The nuclear negotiations or 6 party talks have gone back and forth for many years now, and there’s no signs of sustainable progress to be made there. And the North Korean regime itself has proven itself over the decades to be incredibly impervious to external pressure, so really we’re looking for change to come from inside the country. No one can know the pathway that change will take but we do think the pressure from inside the country will be very important in driving the change to a different North Korea that we’re all looking for. Significant changes have already been happening over the past 10-15 years. The North Korean people are slowly but surely becoming empowered and are breaking away from the state. Grassroots marketization has had all sorts of very interesting effects, but one overall trend is the people breaking away from the state and the regime is becoming relatively less important and less empowered, although it still of course maintains a lot of power. I’m not saying there will be an Arab Spring style revolution any time soon, nor do we put it upon ourselves to advocate for change along a particular pathway. But as a multi-year trend we do see hope in these grassroots changes that are happening. So we are looking at strategies that can accelerate these changes and to help empower the North Korean people themselves to push and drive the changes that they want, instead of trying to push change from the outside, which is less likely to be successful. In a nutshell, change in North Korea will come from within, and the North Korean people will play a crucial role in that.

NK News: In terms of achieving that goal of change from within, wouldn’t it be more prudent to work on sending information in directly rather than indirectly through refugees and defectors?

At this point what I can say is that we are exploring, researching and are in various discussions around strategies which have the potential to empower the North Korean people to accelerate change inside the country in the long term. I’m sure you understand that we have to be prudent and strategic with how public we are with some of these elements, according to what stage we are at with our strategies.

NK News: In terms of overall strategy, does LiNK advocate engagement with the North Korean government, or does LiNK advocate isolation?

I think that, again, this is a complex issue and there’s going to be a lot of people taking lots of different approaches depending on what they’re able to do. I think that there’s validity in tackling this issue from all kinds of different angles, because there is no silver-bullet solution here. Unfortunately, groups are limited in their particular angle and the breadth of the angle they can take because if you’re involved in a certain area then you may be limited from being involved in a different area. For instance if you’re a food aid organization then it’s difficult to get involved in certain types of human rights or refugee issues because of how politicized the issue is and the nature of the North Korean regime. We see validity in and we appreciate and are in contact with all sorts of different groups using different strategies towards this issue and I think that we recognize that in the end we’re all working towards to same kind of end goal.

NK News: To move on, we’ll talk about your movie, ‘The People’s Crisis’ which tells the tale of the “underground railroad”.  You seem to do excellent job in helping people out in very difficult circumstances in this area. What was the main motivation to capture that story in the documentary format?

The People’s Crisis tells part of the story of the underground railroad and also tries to offer an overview of the North Korean crisis itself, including human rights issues and humanitarian issues. It also aims to help shed some light on the history of North Korea; to look into how this situation has come about in the first place. I think that the motivation was that there was space in the market. There are obviously good documentaries covering North Korea at the moment, but we felt there was still a space in the market, to help tell the stories of the North Korean people, and shed light on the challenges they are facing.

NK News: I’ve noticed people can’t watch the movie online, how do you actually watch the movie?

We’ve done national tours with the movie where we send out nomads – our nomads are travelling representatives, essentially interns, and a majority are interested in that – so, we’ve had national tours; I think we travelled 47 of 50 states, you can say nearly all over the country. Also parts of Canada as well, taking the documentary into communities, colleges, churches, high schools, companies and directly showing it and our representatives then had an opportunity to directly speak with the people and answer questions. It’s also available on DVD from our website.

NK News: Films like “A People’s Crisis” presumably cost a lot of money. Although you have 17 movies online with a combined 118,000 views,  do you think that the investment in documentaries is having sufficient impact? 

To clarify I think those figures are for the year of 2011 rather than historical total figures, and they are short video clips rather than being full-length movies. But we operate like any NGO on a tight budget. In terms of actual resources in our budget that went on the film, it’s actually very low and I don’t have any figures for that with me, but it’s more the case of a small number of people pulling all-nighters instead of lots of money going into it. It’s not a significant part of our budget, but we have seen the impact in videos because a lot of the people that are drawn to the issue tell us they first got interested by watching a piece of media. Sometimes it’s a piece of media that’s been around for years and we might have even forgotten it’s online, but you know people still find these things and it sparks interest, and people like that, so we still see the value in it.

Example of LiNK Social Media Campaign

NK News: You have conducted a lot of social media campaigns recently.  However, you don’t obscure the identities of those North Koreans who still live in-country. And understandably with the work you do it may not be the best outcome for those individuals to be associated with your organization through the campaigns when the branding is calling for such major change.  Is this something you’ve thought about?

Our concern is obviously always for the North Korean people. We make sure the pictures that we use don’t reveal anything that would put people in danger. We are using them first and foremost with the permission of the photographer, otherwise it’s a photo that’s been around and it’s known and used by various organizations, for instance South Korean media organizations before, it’s not brand new hidden camera photos of people doing illegal stuff. We’re not necessarily associating a particular North Korean persons’ face with something extremely subversive either. I don’t think the particular campaign you’re talking about, if you’re talking about the messages that are on it, I don’t think anyone could say they’re inciting revolution or anything like that.

To round up, we asked readers for questions and received these two from one reader who is also an active donor to LINK.

1) LiNK can’t be blamed for being a U.S. organization, however, given the particular political context of the North Korean issue some people might get the impression that LiNK is a propaganda machine in disguise. This is especially so given the organization’s presence in schools, etc. What steps is LiNK taking to assure neutrality from a political perspective?

We do take steps, and we actively make efforts with the way we talk about the issue. Also one of the most significant things is that we do not take money from governments. Sometimes people misunderstand that, because many groups are funded by, or take money from government source funding, but we have not done that.

Obviously we are based in the U.S. and people are inevitably going to see us as a U.S.-based group and we have to bare that in mind with our messaging. So people are going to see us as a non-Korean group for instance. In a way that helps us, it gives us an opportunity to maybe take a broader approach in terms of breaking out of the traditional kind of politicization between right and left wing that happens in South Korea in particular. It enables us to not have to fit nicely into a certain political spectrum. Having said that, we’re always interested in expanding and reaching out to different populations around the world.

2) LiNK is now a million dollar NGO; it’s not a huge budget but it’s not peanuts either. The latest budget is not clear when it comes to how donors’ money is spent. Together with big letter statements that 100% of donations went to programs, one would read very differently from the published budget numbers. One example is that I read 39% of money went to operational expenses, 31% to communication and awareness, and only 30% to various programs. Does LiNK think this is balanced? Isn’t there the risk of running an organization only for the sake of running it when operations and communications become so expensive?  

In 2011, 39% of LiNK’s total expenses were operational costs and 61% were program costs.  As noted in the revenues section of our Annual Report, all of our operations were fully covered by specific foundation grants and restricted donations that were intended to subsidize operational needs.  This allowed all of our other donations to go fully toward supporting our program costs.

While some may feel 39% represent high overhead costs, we currently run programs in four countries across two continents and so it is important at this stage in our organization’s development and growth to ensure that we are investing in appropriate infrastructures that are sustainable and can support scaling these existing programs with minimum incremental spend in the future.

LiNK’s awareness initiatives, including media, chapters, tours, etc., are more than just a form of communication for the organization.  They are an important part of our actual mission and are vital to our broader strategy.  Through our awareness programs we educate, raise awareness and work to re-define perceptions on this issue, which has resulted in action, engagement, support and further returns.   One such example – our chapters. In 2011, our chapters not only raised awareness in their local communities about this issue, but they also raised enough funds to rescue 25 refugees.

As we continue pursuing our current strategy, we are confident that we will not only continue growing the organization but will also increase our impact significantly as well.

Where can people find out more about and donate to you?

Recommended for You

N.Korea's 'conservative' display contrasts with past WPK celebrations

N.Korea's 'conservative' display contrasts with past WPK celebrations

North Korea’s latest display of military might, in the form of a parade commemorating the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea 70 years ago, once again featured the lavish marches, hordes of ar…

October 10th, 2015
Last of its kind: The Workers’ Party of Korea keeps the Leninist model alive

Last of its kind: The Workers’ Party of Korea keeps the Leninist model alive

On October 10 North Korea lavishly celebrates what is officially described as “the day when the North Korean Communist Party was founded by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.” Well, as historians know …

October 9th, 2015

About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.