“We have gathered to change the course of history,” said Justin Wheeler, vice president of the California-based Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), at the not-for-profit’s inaugural “Summit” event in June.
Held for supporters of an approach that until last year was “pursuing an end to the North Korea crisis,” Wheeler told his audience of millennial activists that, “Together, we make up and represent this global movement of support that the North Korean people deserve.”
Currently the largest and best-known NGO to focus exclusively on North Korea in the world, feel-good messages of hope and professionally produced events like Summit evidently go down well with LiNK’s supporters, even if they might not be to everyone’s taste.
And as LiNK’s messaging has evolved since a change in leadership in 2009, so to have its resources – with the organization last year raising a record $1.5m from supporters, money the NGO has since 2014 been saying will help “accelerate change in North Korea”.
Yet despite spending over $1.3 million dollars on “changing the narrative” about North Korea since 2010, LiNK never defined the “crisis” it spent four years working to end, today still remaining vague about its new goal of “accelerating change”.
And while the group has so far helped 265 refugees reach safety, like its rescue program LiNK is only known for conducting programs to “empower the North Korean people” from outside of the country.
Can LiNK’s mission to bring “liberty” to North Korea – primarily through awareness-raising campaigns and refugee-assistance programs – therefore ever hope to “accelerate change” inside North Korea?
And how does the not-for-profit’s externally facing “global movement of support” help “empower” the 25 million people still living inside North Korea?
CHANGING TIMES, PRIORITIES
LiNK was established in 2004 by student-activist Adrian Hong at the Eighteenth Annual Korean American Students Conference at Yale University “to educate Korean Americans” about the “sufferings of the North Korean people”.
Initially focused on direct action and advocacy, it would not be for another eight years that the organization – which does not publicly detail its history – begun moving away from approaches that previously included buffing-resistant poster campaigns, letters to members of U.S. Congress, and support for laws to let American citizens adopt North Korean children.
The decision to move away from advocacy – and from an office in Washington, D.C. to Torrance, California – was because LiNK wanted to move away from focusing work on the “high politics” traditionally covered by media and government and instead emphasize efforts that would focus public attention on the North Korean people.
LiNK had by 2010 began prioritizing “creative storytelling” campaigns to help “change the narrative” about North Korea while also increasing support for refugees wanting to leave China
The year of the move, 2009, marked the start of this major change in approach. Under Hannah Song’s new Presidency – with help from VP Wheeler – LiNK had by 2010 began prioritizing “creative storytelling” campaigns – to help “change the narrative” about North Korea while also increasing support for refugees wanting to leave China.
As a result, LiNK increased its film output – titles such as The People’s Crisis and Danny from North Korea among the notable productions in recent years – and also began using social media to divert mainstream attention away from the cult of the Kims and security issues to “redefine North Korea.”
Backing up these digital efforts, LiNKs “Nomads” and interns have since 2009 conducted more than 4,000 events at schools, colleges and churches across the U.S., all with the aim of “increasing support for the North Korean people” and stimulating donor support.
And with more than $4 million in donations raised since 2010 and a current staff of 17, the organization has of late increased its support for refugees, in 2013 funding the migration of a record 85 North Koreans from China to third countries and helping resettle an additional 79 already in South Korea and the U.S.
The work – important from a humanitarian perspective – has allowed supporters to directly impact the lives of North Korean refugees, in some cases completely funding a “rescue” from China, a country which routinely repatriates defectors back to the DPRK, where punishments are widely believed to be harsh.
Beyond these two main program areas, LiNK has also invested in “research and strategy” to help end the “crisis,” though at under 2.5 percent of net expenditure since 2010, it is not a priority area for the organization.
“Our vision as an organization is to work with the people to accelerate change in North Korea…And we don’t prescribe a pathway to that.”
So how do the three areas of work fit together?
The overarching goal is “liberty in North Korea,” Wheeler, LiNK’s vice-president said in a Skype interview with NK News from his California office late in August. “Our vision as an organization is to work with the people to accelerate change in North Korea…And we don’t prescribe a pathway to that.”
“We essentially just look to the North Korean people to be the drivers of that change, and so our end goal is to see that the North Korean people have the freedom and conditions that allow them to fulfill their potential.
“Our role is to support them in whatever capacity we can as an organization.”
‘CHANGING THE NARRATIVE’ AND ‘ACCELERATING CHANGE’?
Featuring panels including “How to accelerate change in North Korea,” “Why Change Is Inevitable,” and “Changing the Narrative,” LiNK’s inaugural Summit event in June brought together supporters and defectors to learn how they could help, in their words, “accelerate change” in North Korea.
Summit was part of LiNK’s “Changing the Narrative” program – a combination of awareness-raising campaigns, media outreach activities and event tours – which was the NGO’s top priority expenditure in 2013, with 37 percent of net expenditure earmarked for activities in that area alone.
“We believe that a global consciousness plays a vital role in the freedom of the North Korean people,” LiNK’s 2013 form 990 report, or federal government summary of impact and fundraising, says about the priority nature of “changing the narrative” activities. “Our compelling media, research and grassroots efforts,” the report continued, help LiNK “share stories of hope of the North Korean people.”
But while films, events and presentations undoubtedly put a human face and personal touch on the plight of North Koreans, how – with refugee assistance – does “changing the narrative” actually enable LiNK to “accelerate change” in North Korea?
“Exactly what is it that they are trying to make people aware of: North Korea is a nasty place?”
“Exactly what is it that they are trying to make people aware of: North Korea is a nasty place?” said Jim Hoare, a UK diplomat that lived in Pyongyang for two years and who has been outspoken in calling for engagement to stimulate positive North Korean behavior.
“I could tell them that and so could you and so do hundreds of newspaper pieces, university seminars and churches. (But) where does that get us or them?” Hoare said. “North Korea is still there and you have to deal with that and not an idealized idea of what might be.”
Another observer from the North Korea human rights community, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of talking about another organization in the field, echoed Hoare’s belief that LiNK needed to also focus on other activities – such as lobbying the U.S. government – to have a significant effect.
“Changing the narrative amongst young people is really so important, and it’s a good start. But you cannot deny that there needs to be much more done at higher levels, especially among decision-makers,” the source said.
“Liberty in North Korea’s approach and strategy is not the end-all be-all solution to what’s happening in North Korea,”
But LiNK, which no longer promotes advocacy activities or lobbies government, does concede that its programs are not a magic bullet.
“Liberty in North Korea’s approach and strategy is not the end-all be-all solution to what’s happening in North Korea,” Wheeler said.
Yet by changing the way people look at North Korea and stimulating broader public interest in the topic, Wheeler said LiNK hopes “that more groups would form and more resources go to other groups.”
“A lot of organizations are just strapped and could be making more significant impact if they had the resources, and so it’s not just about LiNK, it’s about the greater movement, starting new groups,” Wheeler explained.
“If we can raise the global consciousness on North Korea to be more about the people and the change that’s happening to make North Korea look more hopeful, as opposed to just a static, unchanging issue, then we can increase support. Not only for LiNK, but for the movement as a whole, and organizations that are working on all sides of this issue.”
And while LiNK does not signpost supporters to other organizations on either its website or in its media output, Wheeler said he recently connected one NGO working on the ground in the DPRK to “a couple donors, and that’s because they came to know about North Korea from us.”
RAISING AWARENESS, OR MONEY?
But of course, “changing the narrative” about North Korea does also raise money for LiNK, something one observer said marked a clear similarity with the work of Invisible Children, the NGO responsible for the Kony 2012 video that went viral.
Invisible Children is also Justin Wheeler’s previous employer, and until 2011, that of three other full-time LiNK staffers, Wheeler told NK News.
Grant Oyston, the blogger who cast light on the hypocrisies and risks of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, said LiNK’s significant expenditures on awareness mask what is really a fundraising budget.
“They’re doing the same thing Invisible Children did and selling it as ‘We believe that a global consciousness plays a vital role in the freedom of the North Korean people’”
“They’re doing the same thing Invisible Children did and selling it as ‘We believe that a global consciousness plays a vital role in the freedom of the North Korean people,’” he said.
But Wheeler said LiNK doesn’t like the term “raising awareness” and does not think that this accurately summarizes his group’s activities.
“I think what we are doing is actually more significant than just spreading awareness,” he said.
When LiNK conducts presentations around the country, its representatives always offer a direct way for attendees to help, Wheeler said, primarily by requesting financial support for refugee rescues – LiNK’s second largest program area.
“Last year, our tour program recruited over a hundred of what we call ‘rescue teams,’” said Wheeler. “‘Rescue teams’ are students on campuses raising support for refugee rescues. Since we’ve started a ‘rescue team’ program, they’ve funded over half of the North Korean refugees that we have brought to freedom.”
Nevertheless, LiNK’s tour program – a time intensive endeavor that sees five teams engage in 10 week tours of North America – still runs at a net loss according to data in the group’s 2013 report, costing $260,338 last year and bringing in $158,582 in donations.
“I guess they would suggest that that loss proves that the tour is indeed about ‘global consciousness’ and not fundraising,” said Oyston.
While Wheeler later told NK News the published figures do not include subsequent or secondary donations that make the expense profitable in longer range terms, he concedes the program would still run if it was loss making.
“If there was really no financial return, we could still justify that expense because we think it’s important – again it’s raising the global consciousness on this issue, not just for LiNK but for any other organization getting involved,” Wheeler said.
But overall, LiNK’s “changing the narrative” activities are indeed a profitable program for LiNK, with the NGO reporting that a $468,825 expenditure in the area raised over one million dollars in 2013.
A BRIDGE TO NORTH KOREA?
Starting in September 2013, LiNK published a selection of teaser videos telling supporters they were “building a bridge” to North Korea. The bridge, of course, is a metaphorical one – a route for money and information to go back into North Korea.
“The bridge is helping to transform North Korea from the bottom up,” the microsite for the project said.
Pointing out that “a rescue changes everything,” LiNK used the bridge metaphor to explain how their refugee rescue work affects more than just the individual defectors. Helping refugees escape China to third countries, LiNK said, is an action that would help “accelerate change” in North Korea.
“Our goal is to increase the amount of money, information and resources flowing into North Korea each year, by building a bridge that cannot be destroyed. The construction of this bridge can reach tens of thousands of North Koreans each year, which will increase the North Korean people’s independence from the regime,” Wheeler said in a video about the bridge from 2013.
“Our goal is to increase the amount of money, information and resources flowing into North Korea each year, by building a bridge that cannot be destroyed”
So far, LiNK has helped 265 refugees leave China, and by doing so, each person is “helping fuel grass-root marketization in the country, sharing new ideas, (and) helping break down the ideology in the country through the information that they share,” Wheeler told NK News.
While some observers do not dispute LiNK’s argument that information and money can have potential for a transformative effect in North Korea, are defectors the major conduit for these flows — and are the refugees actively building the bridges LiNK says they are?
“It varies case by case, (though) I would say that even if people don’t send money, they keep in touch to know how their relatives are doing,” said Joanna Hosaniak of the Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
“I would say that there are few groups, those that are in touch at least every three months, others who do it only once or twice a year, others who do not contact at all.
“Some have more reasons for contact, they are searching for their family members, or want to get information about the situation in North Korea…Some don’t encourage others to come, but provide financially so that their family members can establish some business in North Korea,” Hosaniak said.
But the specialist familiar with North Korean human rights who requested anonymity said it was unclear if information being sent back to refugees was having much effect.
“I think money is likely the most “empowering” thing in North Korean society, if you will. I think that information does impact people, but if you look at folks coming these days in particular, they all have a pretty good sense of the opportunities that are (in South Korea) for them,” the specialist said.
“Most defectors who are here have no desire to be all politically aggressive like some of the key folk in Seoul suggest. They just wish to live good lives here and also support family back north if they can. It costs quite a bit to make contact so that itself makes it a bit difficult,” the specialist said.
“It’s worse than when Kim Il Sung was in power because back then people really didn’t know anything, but now they do and the government is stopping them from speaking out openly.”
And one well known defector who took part in LiNK’s own Summit event told NK News by email that information did not necessarily have a positive effect.
“It is hard to know how people will change; there is no way to know for sure really. I think the situation has been getting worse though,” Yeonmi Park said. “I don’t feel like there will be a big change in the near future.”
One example of a worsening situation she cited was the northern region of Hyesan, where she said residents had been relatively free to speak against the government at times.
“Nowadays, it’s like when Kim Jong Il was in charge,” Park said. “People know the truth, but now they can’t talk about it because of a government crackdown on dissidents.”
“It’s worse than when Kim Il Sung was in power because back then people really didn’t know anything, but now they do and the government is stopping them from speaking out openly.”
CHANGE THROUGH MARKETIZATION
And for there to be a measurable and transformative effect to the financial aspect of the bridge, defectors would need to be routinely sending back money to be used for private business, something specialists familiar with refugee flows had differing views on.
“Families of refugees are rich because they get money from people in South Korea. In the long run, it reinforces a rather common belief and understanding that South Korea is a very rich and successful place, and this is seriously destabilizing for the (North Korean) government,” said Kookmin University’s Dr. Andrei Lankov about the impact of refugee remittances.
Conceding that often money is used to bribe officials, for consumption or for buying real estate, Lankov overall agreed with LiNK’s characterization of the impact of the remittances: “As a rule this is (mainly) investment into the private economy of North Korea.”
“(Remittances) reinforce a rather common belief and understanding that South Korea is a very rich and successful place”
But not everyone agrees with the claimed financial impact, with one researcher suggesting there was little evidence of money being used to fund business endeavors in the emerging North Korean market.
“LiNK likes to share anecdotal stories about defectors who have remitted funds and their family started a business, but there is little statistical evidence of what defector remittances are being used for,” said Jordan Groh, a SOAS graduate who focused his research on the societal impact defection has in North Korea.
“Marketization is quickly changing daily life in North Korea, (but) I remain unconvinced that defector remittances are playing an influential role (in supporting it),” Groh continued.
“LiNK likes to share anecdotal stories about defectors who have remitted funds … but there is little statistical evidence of what they are being used for”
Yet even if the bridge is encouraging marketization, a further organic limitation relates to the fact that the transformative effects LiNK describes are not evenly distributed.
With 70 percent of defectors coming from border regions near China – and the majority from poor backgrounds – Groh said they are unlikely to have the influence needed to stimulate political changes in Pyongyang, a city viewed to be largely loyal to the government.
“An examination of Songbun in North Korea shows that the 26,000 North Koreans living in South Korea are categorically not influential members of government,” Groh said. “If LiNK were focused on getting North Koreans out of Pyongyang, this may be a different story. But only 1.94 percent of defectors have come from Pyongyang.”
And even if money and information could accelerate a desire for political change in the political capital, recent history has shown that when faced with challenges, authoritarian governments do not often back down easily.
Indeed, Syria’s bloody repression of the opposition and Iran’s harsh rejection of the Green Movement – both occurring in countries with far more open information environments and established market economies than North Korea – suggest that “bridges” like the one LiNK describes might not “accelerate change” in quite the way supporters hope.
But the approach to “accelerating change” is not an issue that LiNK goes near. “Like I said earlier, we don’t prescribe that pathway, whether its collapse or reform,” LiNK VP Wheeler told NK News.
REFUGEE RESCUE RESULTS
So, if the money and information the refugees are sending back may be having a limited effect, is the act of rescuing individual defectors – combined to LiNK’s awareness raising activities – really a strategy that can have a broad impact on the lives of the 25 million people still living inside North Korea?
“Rescuing and supporting refugees is good but it does not contribute to their professed aim of ‘ending the North Korean crisis,’” said Hoare – the UK diplomat that worked in Pyongyang – of LiNK’s pre-2014 mission statement.
Noting that the “crisis” LiNK had been working towards had been “undefined,” Hoare asked, “Is it the refugee issue, in which case perhaps helping refugees is something positive.
“(Or) is it the continued existence of North Korea? If so, it will require something quite different from helping refugees or talking to people around the United States.
“A wooly set of objectives that it would be churlish to oppose, but which in reality will do nothing but possibly increase awareness that there are problems with North Korea without offering any real solutions.”
“Are they planning to keep taking people out one by one until they’ve finished the country?”
“What’s the long-term plan?” asked Grant Oyston of Visible Children.
“I see the beneficial economic impact of having expatriated North Koreans sending money back into the country, but are they planning to keep taking people out one by one until they’ve finished the country?
“Or are they throwing starfish one by one?” Oyston added – referring to charitable actions that social change entrepreneur Rich Tafel once described as benefitting only “lucky” individuals while giving the “impression that we’re solving the problem.”
But for Lankov, the Kookmin professor, it seems LiNK’s approach is logical. Saying “it makes sense to get people out” for those who “want to make a difference,” Lankov believes refugee assistance could have a meaningful net effect in North Korea, but that the real hurdle lay in the South.
“The major bottleneck is the position of the South Korean government, who are not very enthusiastic about bringing these people in, because defectors are very expensive,” said Lankov, alluding to the high costs of processing inbound refugees to the South Korean state.
Whether or not LiNK’s strategy will really help accelerate positive change more broadly in North Korea, it is clear that the group’s support for refugees will continue to be welcomed by observers from all sides of the equation. And this is an area that LiNK say they will continue to increase their support for.
“The conversation we’re having is how can we scale this significantly, so we can help more North Koreans,” said Wheeler. “And I think that as we scale as an organization this becomes much more significant.”
And as the group scales, Wheeler said he hopes that even more people will become interested in helping North Koreans.
“I mean in North America, the fact that we’re one of the only full time organizations working solely on North Korea, is ridiculous compared to the challenges that the people there are facing. So, our hope is that more groups, more resources would start up as a result (of us).”
For now, though, it may be possible that – as one LiNK supporter explained at June’s Summit event – the “North Koreans don’t know how much support they’re getting.”
“If we can get to them that we’re supporting them, I think that would give them more help while they’re in North Korea,” high school graduate Erin Keoppen said. “I think that’s something that’s really important.”
Main picture: Liberty in North Korea
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