Refugees: North Korea's Seeds of Hope

By Chelsea Marcum 02-19-2010

North Korea is the most isolated and closed-off country in the world. Basic freedoms -- such as the freedom of speech, press, non-governmental markets, religion, association, and movement -- are denied the North Koreans, causing an estimated 300,000 North Koreans to cross the border into China to escape starvation, unemployment, and political oppression. If caught, these refugees are sent back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment or execution for leaving their country (an "infraction" that is considered treason). To prevent capture, North Korean refugees either remain in hiding in China or escape again to Southeast Asia, a region known for friendlier nations that allow North Koreans to apply for refugee status.

As an intern at the nonprofit advocacy organization, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), I met a family of North Korean refugees. Peter* and his wife Gloria* were protected in one of LiNK's shelters for North Korean refugees in Southeast Asia for more than one year, while waiting to be processed for resettlement to the United States. In the summer of 2008, Peter and Gloria arrived in the United States. A year later, they invited LiNK members to their apartment for a visit, and to meet their newborn daughter Jennie*. I went with my other intern teammates, Pedro Lopez and Julie Woodruff, to meet with Peter and Gloria.

We all hunched over Jennie's bed holding our breath each time she opened her eyes. As the child of two North Korean refugees, Jennie is one of few North Korean babies to be born in America. Unlike her parents, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement are all granted to her as a birthright.

"Your baby is a U.S. citizen," we whispered. Gloria nodded and smiled. She looked down at the baby and smoothed her black hair with two fingers. "We are very happy," she answered.

Gloria, her husband Peter, and Jennie live in a guest room at a friend's home. Nearly three years ago, Gloria and Peter escaped from North Korea. With LiNK's assistance, they reached safety and are now resettled in the United States.

The guest room they live in is sparsely furnished. Most of the room's space is taken by the large bed where Jennie sleeps in the middle, framed as the most prized thing in the room. Gloria motioned for us to sit on the floor as she served us a plate of fruit.

We ate and chatted with Gloria about Jennie and her pregnancy while my teammate Pedro snapped photos of the baby to share with friends back at the LiNK office. I noticed a Korean-English Bible on the floor beside us. In North Korea, possessing a Bible is grounds for lifetime imprisonment.

As it came time for us to leave, Gloria said she wanted to view the pictures on Pedro's camera. She asked him to delete the ones showing her face: "We still have family in North Korea." Peter's brother, she explained, just got out of a prison camp. He was arrested because of their escape. In North Korea, relatives of defectors are punished. Even if a North Korean is safely resettled in a free country, she must be careful that there is no evidence of her escape on the internet or news that the government can use to reprimand her family. Gloria and Peter want to bring their family out of North Korea.

We thanked Gloria and huddled around Jennie one last time. Gloria unzipped the baby's blanket pouch, revealing a tiny body that stretched and wriggled. Jennie, whose parents were born into a horrific condition, was born into great freedom. Jennie is a seed of hope for the 23 million in North Korea.

Chelsea Marcum is a former intern for Liberty in North Korea. LiNK hopes to launch a transition home called "Liberty House" to further assist refugees like Peter, Gloria, and Jennie. To help LiNK win start-up funding for Liberty House through the Pepsi Refresh Project, and to learn more about the organization, visit www.linkglobal.org.

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