Hannah Song: Pursuing Humanity for North Koreans

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The Kim Family lived like animals. Heather lived in constant hunger. Shin was born in a political prison camp and watched his mother and brother executed before his eyes.  This family and thousands of others are suffering and Hannah Song is stepping up to help.

Song is a beautiful, young, articulate and passionate woman on a mission. She was born the youngest child to two Korean immigrants and grew up as a fairly typical American girl in New Jersey.  After college, she worked her way up the corporate ladder at an advertising agency.  One day she happened to read “Aquariums of Pyongyang” a true story about a 9 year-old boy placed in a political prison camp in North Korea for almost 10 years with his grandmother, father, uncle and younger sister in Yodok, #2915.  Hannah admits she was not a great student of world affairs but was always fascinated by history and remembers the Holocaust and the phrase “Never Again” and was shocked that she didn’t know about the North Korean situation.  She wanted to know about her family’s history but her family never talked about it, so she read and researched more on her own and felt she had to do something.

Hannah Song

Hannah Song

It was about that time that the young, activist generation focused on human rights and Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) (started on the Yale college campus) was starting its grassroots movement. Hannah volunteered at a benefit concert and was hooked.  Although she had a full time job, she spent her free time traveling and volunteering for LINK. From 2005-2006, she traveled to China, South Korea and Europe and met with governments and North Korean refugees and felt a calling todo something meaningful with her life.  She quit her advertising agency job to work for LiNK in Washington DC.  She worked there for two years and when the Executive Director left, she was ready to take over the helm in 2008.

She relocated herself and her organization to California in 2009 to better raise the awareness of the plight of the North Korean people. She asked me if I knew of the conditions…the suffering… and I admitted only what I read in the newspapers, which was very little.  She asked me to read “Escape from Camp 14″ by Blaine Harden (2012) and I too am shocked that the world doesn’t know; that modern day atrocities are happening under the watchful eye of satellites, the media and gobs of social media.  There is no running water, a few hours of electricity per day and people are starving.  Per capita income in North Korea was $1,900 in 2009. Sudan, Congo and Laos have higher per capita incomes.

I had a chance to sit down with this young woman who wants to open Pandora’s Box and set her people free.

Tell me more about LINK?

It’s the only full time grassroots organization in North America dedicated to this cause.  We have offices in Southern California, Seoul, Korea, and a shelter in Southeast Asia.  We have three goals:  (1) Redefining North Korea by focusing on the people; we are telling their stories through our documentary “The People’s Crisis;” we are spreading the word through our “Nomads” who are young, college-aged or recently graduated students students who travel all across the country to tell these stories.  Over 50,000 people at 800 events across North America have heard the stories directly from our Nomads and via our Rescue Teams, which are like chapters, around the world.  (2) Providing assistance to North Korean refugees.  We help them escape through our networks in the “modern day underground railroad” and get them safely to our shelter in Southeast Asia where we help them get legal “refugee status” and later assist them in beginning their new lives after they are resettled.  (3) Ultimately, we are pursuing an end to this crisis and believe that the key to that lies in empowering the North Korean people with ways to create that change.

How many refugees have you helped?

We helped bring 129 North Koreans to freedom in the past two years.   In just 2011, we assisted 54 refugees in their safe resettlement, which included 13 children.  Two individuals chose to begin their new lives in the US and 52 headed to South Korea; 10 were able to reunite with families who had been previously resettled.  These are difficult and dangerous journeys.  If refugees get caught, they will be sent back to North Korea and face imprisonment, torture and possibly execution.  Their families are also at jeopardy.  In North Korea, they believe in punishing three-generations of your family so many lives are at stake.

Why did you move LINK from Washington DC to California?

Most of what we hear usually relates to the political and security issues when it comes to North Korea. We’re trying to change the conversation and redefine this issue so that the focus is on the North Korean people and not just the politics.  At the level of high politics, this issue is a stalemate and we didn’t feel there was hope for progress.


When will there be liberty for North Koreans?

Nobody knows.  Some people may feel like this is an impossible issue, but change IS happening on the ground and will continue to happen.  Interestingly it’s being driven by the North Korean people.

What do you think will cause the most change?

Over the last 12-15 years North Koreans have slowly had access to increased media- more and more people are illegally watching DVDs of South Korean dramas and realizing how well off their South Korean brethren are.  The availability of illegal DVDs and other types of information makes them more aware of the outside world, which is crucial to breaking down the regime’s information blockade. And many North Koreans who have escaped are communicating with their family in North Korea through illegal Chinese cell phones, and are sending money back to their families through illicit networks. This money literally enables their families to survive.  Pressure from the people from the bottom up is important to pushing for change.

How did your parents react when you quit your corporate job for a nonprofit?

My parents thought I was crazy for quitting my job and leaving a “stable” life.  Fortunately, they came around and now are huge advocates for the work we’re doing.  They go around asking their friends to donate to LiNK!  Without the incredible support of my family, I don’t think I would be able to do this work.

What do you do in your spare time?

LiNK is pretty much what I am focusing on right now in my life.  This is more than just a cause to me, but truly a calling.  So long as I can offer something to LiNK and to this issue, I will continue to do this work.  My grandmother is from North Korea but she’s 97 years old now.  She left North Korea before the war, but was never able to go back to see her family, her own kids, again.   One of my hopes was always to go back to North Korea one day with my grandmother and see where she was from.

How can people find out more information about LINK, donate and/or volunteer?     

Thank you for asking!  We gotta make it rain for LINK in 2013! For more information, ways to get involved, or to donate, people can check out our website at www.linkglobal.org.

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