Seongji Kim MATLM ’19 and Seo-Young Jun MATLM ’18 first met while working for a nonprofit organization—Liberty in North Korea—that seeks to aid North Korean refugees. Now students at the Middlebury Institute, the two have founded a local chapter of Liberty in North Korea in Monterey, where they continue to advocate for changing the narrative around this very contentious issue.
How did you get involved with Liberty in North Korea?
Seongji: My grandmother’s family is originally from North Korea—they escaped right before the Korean War. Growing up, she would tell me about her childhood and how the North Korean people were the smartest, brightest, and most adventurous, and that it was so sad that they were now oppressed by this government so they could not fulfill their potential as human beings. So I grew up hearing these stories. I majored in political science as an undergraduate, and as a freshman had the opportunity to interpret for a documentary filmmaker who was interviewing North Korean defectors. It was a turning point for me, and I felt that I needed to get involved. In the classroom, we talk a lot about the politics, security, and reunification but not much about the people. I then interned and later got a job with Liberty in North Korea at the office in Seoul. It completely changed my perspective. Before, I thought the high-politics approach was the best way to tackle this issue, but my work with the organization really changed that perspective into focusing more on people and giving more agency to the people of North Korea.
Seo-Young: My story is very different. I found an internship with Liberty in North Korea in Long Beach that I felt was a good fit with the field of translation and localization management. When I was offered a position based on my filmmaking skills, I was not sure I should take it, but I am really happy I did. It was an eye-opening experience. I had the chance to interact with eight North Korean defectors during the two-month internship, and I extended my internship and worked with Charles, the defector who visited the Institute last fall.
What do you think people are missing when the focus is on the latest threats?
Seongji: In the midst of all of the talk of security issues, people’s stories are not getting enough attention. And when they do get attention, it is in a very disempowering way. I mean, the same problem applies to many other communities. We always see the North Korean people as victims; they don’t have the means to really help themselves, and we always think that they are brainwashed and helpless, and somehow outsiders need to go in and rescue them. But we are trying to say that they are actually making so much more progress than the UN, the US, and the South Korean government ever have, and that was what was so striking to me. I mean, I always thought the UN needed to up its game and do something about the situation, but then actually, no, the North Korean people are just organically doing so much more, and we just need to be the supporters. We need to stand by them and tell their stories so that people know that they are not just victims. There is a lot more to do to shift the narrative.
Seo-Young: It is important to us that Liberty in North Korea is not a political organization. The mission is to help refugees and to promote human rights. By taking politics out of the equation, we can focus on the people.