North Korean ‘underground railroad’ leads to Torrance

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LiNK is a group based right here in Southern California that helps North Korean refugees escape through an underground railroad and resettle them in South Korea or the United States. They also give scholarships, tutor English and provide asylum services to the refugees. So far, the non-profit has rescued and resettled more than 100 North Korean defectors.

LiNK also operates an online store
LiNK also operates an online store

The group also wages a campaign for hearts and minds, by trying to change the image that most Americans have of North Korea. Every spring and fall they select 15 young people to come to their headquarters in Torrance as part of the Nomad program. These American twenty-somethings (some of them with parents from North Korea) live in the intern house together for six weeks and receive intensive training on public speaking, geopolitics and American policies towards North Korea. After the training, they will be sent across the country in 12 vans for the next 10 weeks. Each route is about 11,000 miles long and has around 100 events. These young people will live on their own expenses, sleep on people’s couches, and work up to 16 hours a day.

Producer Shako Liu made a visit to the offices of LiNK to speak with employees and volunteers about their work trying to change Americans’ idea about the most censored country on earth.

 Chi Ko, 24, watched a documentary about North Korea two years ago, she was struck by the brutal situation of the people.

“I had no idea that political camp existed or how bad the situation was in North Korea, so I just cried a lot in my room, and then after that I just have to keep getting more involved and knowledgeable about the issue, so I kept watching more documentaries, reading more articles, and the more I found out about this, it was like I can’t just sit back, and do nothing, knowing that people who look just like me and speak the same language as me are living life that I could never even comprehend,” Ko said.

Ko quit her corporate job in New York and moved to Torrance to work for free for LiNK.

LiNK’s vice president, Justin Wheeler said the North Koreans they help escape need assistance even after they’re out.

“Once they make it to safety or freedom, to U.S. or South Korea, there is somewhat a tough adjustment, because it’s a different society, a different culture. So we provide assistance in that transition to help make sure they are as successful as possible in their new lives,” he said.

Wheeler explained the reasoning for sending 20-somethings on a road tour to change opinions.

“We are targeting, at least through our campaigns and our grassroots efforts, the millennial generation. We want people to just look at North Korea and we want their perceptions to be based on the challenges of the North Korean people, both on the challenges and the change when you see them on the ground level.”

The Torrance office of LiNK
The Torrance office of LiNK (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)