On the fourth floor of the start-up subsidiary office Hey Ground, behind a trendy coffee room, North Korean lives are changed and saved. From this open-plan office in Seoul, South Korea, overlooking a wall of Polaroids under the caption “For North Koreans Living in a Free World,” Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) employees support citizens trying to escape North Korea. . The organization helps North Korean refugees send money from South Korea to relatives left behind. LiNK also wants to flood North Korea with international films, series and information. “We’re talking about change, driven by North Korean citizens,” said LiNK director Sokeel Park (37). “That could be economic change, or the provision of outside information, empowering North Korean citizens, and reducing government hegemony.” Is that even possible in such a totalitarian stronghold? “It always seems impossible with these kinds of regimes, until it’s inevitable,” Park says firmly. Humanitarian situation How do you help needy people in the most closed country in the world? Politicians, policymakers and human rights activists have been debating this question for decades. And with good reason: in North Korea tens of thousands of people are living in penal camps, almost half of the population is struggling with food shortages and citizens are sighing under a repressive regime. Despite horrific testimonies and piles of UN reports, the humanitarian situation has hardly changed, if not even worse. LiNK also wants more attention for the humanitarian situation, which is so serious that Amnesty International previously wrote that it forms “a category in itself”. But what can North Koreans do practically when the regime blocks free movement and targets its citizens with one of the strictest surveillance systems in the world? Also read: This show makes South Koreans laugh at their northern neighbors. This is how the reunion begins That is where the focus lies for the non-profit organization LiNK, which relies on donations and subsidies. LiNK mainly relies on the at least 1,310 North Korean refugees who have survived since it was founded in 2004. “It is almost impossible to flee through the DMZ [the inter-Korean border], so the lion’s share goes through China,” says Park. There they have to stay out of sight of the authorities, because Beijing sends back North Koreans – after which they are usually awaited by the penal camp. “LiNK has networks in China that take people south across the country unseen,” says Park. “Getting in touch with them works through references, so people don’t have to pay expensive commercial brokers [a type of people smuggler who often also performs other services in China and North Korea].” There they have to get to Thailand via Laos or Myanmar, where they can apply for asylum at the South Korean embassy. Providing aid in North Korea is nearly impossible, so helping people escape is one of the best things a North Korean can do, LiNK believes. “Call it an ethical form of human smuggling.” Education program In South Korea, the refugees first receive an education program of three months. In it they learn how life works in a liberal democracy, how to use a bank card or pay bills. And they help refugees integrate into the hyper-competitive South Korean society. The arrivals then play a role in helping family and friends who are still in North Korea. For example, transferring money can make a big difference in North Korea, because of the huge differences in wealth. That does n’t go through the internet; a Chinese intermediary is needed who can travel into North Korea. Park: “From South Korea it is transferred to a Chinese account, a broker takes it in cash to North Korea and gives it to the recipient.” That intermediary takes a big bite of commission from that amount, but there are no alternatives. “The relatives confirm by telephone from the Chinese broker that the money has actually been received.” Furthermore, LiNK and other NGOs are helping to send South Korean and Western media to the communist neighbor to the north. Park: “North Koreans tell us that is the most important thing we can do for the country. Every bit of information you bring to the country multiplies there: we hope change in North Korea ultimately comes from the people.” Corona pandemic The corona pandemic is causing major headaches within LiNK. North Korea has been almost completely closed off from the outside world since January 2020 and if a refugee already crosses the border, he ends up in the strict Chinese corona regime – where the chance of being caught is greater than ever. “The corona restrictions have made it almost impossible to help refugees, even those who are already in China,” says Park. “The work is now so much more difficult that our primary focus is now on helping North Koreans in South Korea.” The strong Western action after the Russian invasion of Ukraine gives him hope. “This really sets a new standard for solidarity, and not just in words, but really in deeds. People not only consider themselves an ally of Ukraine, concrete aid is pouring into the country.” While he still sees hurdles when it comes to empathy for North Korea, Park believes this response offers opportunities for the future. Part of LiNK’s work is therefore tackling stereotypes and providing a broader, richer picture of North Koreans – for example via Instagram and YouTube. Despite all the help LiNK provides, one thing is certain for Park: “It is not up to us, but up to the North Koreans to determine the future of North Korea.” Voltages Rocket Tests Tensions between North Korea and its neighbors South Korea and Japan have been running high in recent weeks. North Korea has been extremely active since last month in testing long- and medium-range weapon systems and missiles. At the beginning of this month, North Korea fired a missile that flew over Japanese territory before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Last Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was in person when two cruise missiles were fired from a distance of 2,000 kilometers. According to the North Koreans, those missiles can be equipped with nuclear warheads. With the tests, North Korea would simulate attacks on airports and military targets in South Korea. In the two weeks before that, the country tested several other missiles, simulating nuclear attacks on US and South Korean targets. In a statement, North Korea said the weapons tests are intended as a warning to Seoul and Washington. The US and South Korea held the largest joint military exercises in years in the region in August. North Korea sees this as a provocation and a direct threat to its own security. Kim Jong-un said on Thursday that his country has already equipped cruise missiles with nuclear warheads so that it can deploy tactical nuclear weapons when needed. He said North Korea’s armed forces are fully prepared for war, and the tests are a warning to the country’s enemies. South Korea said North Korea launched a ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan on Friday. The South Korean military also reported that about ten North Korean warplanes had approached the border. As a precaution, Seoul also sent fighter jets into the air. There was no confrontation. The same day, North Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells into the waters off the eastern and western coasts of North Korea. They came down in buffer zones north of what is believed to be the maritime border between the two countries, according to South Korea. South Korea’s National Security Council condemns the regime in Pyongyang for escalating tensions. The council also states that North Korea is violating a 2018 pact that prohibits “hostile actions” in the border area. North Korea’s KCNA news agency previously said Pyongyang has taken “vigorous military countermeasures” over South Korea’s military activities. A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 18, 2022