When she was in elementary school, Julie Yoon reported on human rights issues in her journalism club. “I didn’t have a bedtime or anything,” said Yoon, now a sophomore at New York University, where she studies media, culture and communications. “I was definitely exposed to news media earlier,” she said.
Watching news with her dad every night influenced her perspective of the world, triggering her interest in humanitarian news and the idea of “giving” back to the society by helping those in need.
That little girl from Portland, Oregon now lives in New York City, where she continues to pursue her education. However, academic isn’t her only interest at NYU. Every Thursday night, Yoon walks over to Kimmel Center, a student center at NYU, to join the rest of her fellow members of Freedom for North Korea (F4NK).
As a secretary of F4NK, a student club at NYU that raises awareness of North Korean refugees, Yoon is actively involved with the club’s activities. Although she isn’t risking her life to physically help the refugees escape from North Korea, she believes each individual may have different roles as an activist. Thankful for what she has and what she can have, Yoon ceaselessly tries to give back to the society and found her way to do so at F4NK. Raising awareness of North Korean human rights issues by coordinating various events at F4NK, she wants to give opportunities to those around her to become aware of the hardships that the North Korean refugees face today and for those refugees to be heard with their challenges.
Yoon, with other board members of F4NK, invites special guests to talk about their works regarding to North Korean refugees at their weekly meetings. Past guests include Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), PSALT NK, and Venus Chui. LiNK and PSALT NK are both non-profit organizations that help refugees by physically rescuing them from North Korea and China, fundraising money to support this rescue, and collecting resources to help their resettlements. Venus Chui is a NYU student who has been to North Korea recently. Guests cover various topics on North Korean refugees from their economic sufferings, refugee hardships, and lack of political rights in North Korea.
“I like NYU’s F4NK because our main goal is to raise awareness, not necessarily to enforce a certain idea about North Korea,” said Yoon. “We’re not enforcing anything to anyone. It’s just trying to make an opportunity for people to be informed, rather than convince them to certain direction. And I really appreciated that.”
While the world’s news media drew their attentions closely to North Korea’s nuclear missiles and released propaganda videos that threaten U.S., North Koreans and their difficulties of living under a dictatorship rule aren’t as much informed to the public. “I think it’s important for people to know what is actually happening there, other than [the] political aspect of it,” said Yoon. She finds the guests’ talks helpful to raise awareness of the current situation of North Korea’s people, not its politics. From these professionals and people with first-hand experiences, NYU students are able to learn more in depth about the challenges the North Korean refugees face today.
“People know that most people in Africa suffer,” said Yoon, “ People know most African countries don’t’ get to live like us. When it comes to North Korea, people generally think they just have a very corrupted society. They don’t think about people under the government. People think they’re enemies. I think that’s the main difference.” Low media coverage, government’s powerful shield of isolation, and people’s biased perspective towards the country have left North Koreans by themselves in the world, when they need the world’s most help, according to Yoon.
To show there exists international support for these North Korean refugees, F4NK annually makes Christmas cards to share their care and interest for the refugees who have resettled in U.S. The students gather around in a big round table to create Christmas cards from scratch. Cutting, pasting, and gluing papers, the members decorate each card by drawing Christmas themed figures and writing “Merry Christmas” in English and Korean.
Professionals from non-profit organizations agree to Yoon’s approach of helping North Korean refugees.
“I think everybody can take different approaches and different ways of engaging these kinds of issues and be involved in different levels as well,” said So Keel Park, director of research and strategy of LiNK. “Educating yourself is part of developing more effective engagement.”
“I think there are a lot of ways to help North Korean people. The first, primary way we can start helping them is to start talking about them, just getting them in the public’s awareness,” said Andrew Quan, donor relations manager of LiNK. “I think it’s great, whatever you can do to share stories about North Korean people.”
“I don’t want to put a degree to urgency when it comes to human rights issue,” said Yoon, “I don’t want to say that North Korean human rights issue is the most urgent one. I think all human rights issues are equally weighed.” While it’s important to be aware of all ongoing human rights issues around the world, she finds her personal ties to North Korean human rights issue due to her heritage background with her original home, South Korea. “It’s so close,” said Yoon. Her family had moved to US in her teens but up till then, the family had lived in South Korea. For Yoon, she also had a direct relationship with this particular issue because she knew a refugee couple from North Korea. Her account with them was a kicker in her current involvement with North Korean refugees.
In Portland, Oregon, where she grew up, Yoon’s neighbor was a pastor who knew a North Korean refugee couple from his church. Yoon had an opportunity to meet with them and listen to their story of escaping one’s own country. “The entire family escaped except for his dad and they don’t know what happened [to him],” said Yoon. Although it wasn’t her personal experience and the story seemed too unbelievable to be true due to high risks the couple had gone through, this testimony hit her hard as she heard the story in person from the person who had planned, attempted, and luckily, succeeded in this dangerous escape.
Shocking and eye-opening, this experience triggered Yoon to raise more awareness for these refugees for the sake of their safety, and her active involvement with F4NK has helped her determination possible. “Julie turned out to be really passionate and dedicated which comes to show that it really is about the quality of the membership and not the quantity,” said Soomi Rho, Vice President of F4NK. Aside from coordinating talk events, making Christmas cards, screening documentaries, and talking to friends, classmates, co-workers, and even strangers about the North Korean refugees in a light conversation raise and spread a great amount of awareness, according to Yoon.
“Everyone should believe what they should believe in,” said Yoon, as she confides in her strategy of “giving.” Yoon plans to pursue her personal way of raising awareness of North Korean refugees, and believes it will make a difference.