Activist Hannah Song Left Corporate Job To Launch Non-Profit Helping North Korean Refugees

North Korea has been in the news quite prominently of late due to its leader Kim Jong Un testing nuclear weapons throughout 2017. The issue of potential war with the reclusive nation has of course been exacerbated by President’s Trump’s immature tweets and comments about the tyrant leader. As a country that is shielded from the rest of the world, it is hard to learn about everyday life in North Korea and get to know people who live there.

With hyped-up movies like ‘The Interview’ and viral videos like Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea with VICE media, all we seem to get is the politicized, Americanized version that is mostly devoid of humanity toward North Korean people. One woman who is working to change the narrative around this isolated country while helping North Korean refugees who escape a trapped existence is Korean-American activist Hannah Song.

She recently spoke with Tina Brown at the Dallas Women In The World salon, sharing details about the organization she founded and how she left her corporate career to enter the non-profit world. She founded an organization called Liberty in North Korea in 2004 and decided to leave her job as a media supervisor for a global advertising agency to work on it full time from 2006 onward. She told NBC News in 2016 how, along with the rescue missions, the aim was to reframe narratives about North Korean people away from the political lens.

“The narrative around North Korea is very heavily around the politics, the nuclear issues … people have viewed North Korea as sort of a joke…You have these things where people don’t really take North Korea seriously, and usually what’s missing [from that narrative] are the 24 million North Korean people who live in that country,” she said.

According to the United Nations, North Korea is the worst offender of human rights in the world. No one from the country is allowed to leave without express permission from the leadership, and as noted in many news stories, films, books, and media from the outside world are forbidden. The daily atrocities and oppressive rules North Koreans live under are detailed in former refugee Yeonmi Park’s book ‘In Order To Live’ where she recounts her escape from her former country and the difficulties refugees face even after leaving.

Women in the World described Liberty in North Korea as a “modern day underground railroad”, alluding to the work of activists like Harriet Tubman who help free thousands of slaves in America during the 1800s. Hannah says her role as an activist was “accidental”, as she had no real desire to do this type of work until she came across a book about a 9 year-old boy who was sent to work in the brutal prison camps with his parents and grandparents after his grandfather was accused of betraying the government.

The book describes how the family was subjected to a multi-generational punishment, outlining just how inhumane and oppressive the country is toward so-called “dissidents”. After reading that book, Hannah was shocked that such treatment existed in the world and couldn’t go back to life as normal. She also learned that her own grandmother who was born in North Korea, left the country before North and South Korea became divided. She was never able to return after that happened.

To date Liberty in North Korea has rescued 700 refugees and helped them settle into life away from North Korea. They hold fundraisers which go toward securing safe passage for those wanting to escape, as one of the big problems refugees face is becoming financially indebted to brokers who organize their passage, and who can often become dangerous and violent, as Yeonmi Park describes in her book from her own experience. Navigating their way out of North Korea and crossing the borders of neighboring countries, and seeking asylum in new countries can be very difficult and frightening for people from a country where they have literally had no contact with or knowledge of the rest of the world.

Liberty In North Korea is based out of Los Angeles and has a base in Seoul, South Korea, and organizes rescue trips where volunteers also learn more about what is happening in North Korea. Most importantly, they become a vital part of the refugees’ new life and help them feel safe and supported.

“It’s a really important initial opportunity for us to instill a sense of confidence in North Koreans when they first arrive to say, ‘You’ve overcome these incredible challenges and as you begin your new life, there are going to be a lot more challenges, but we want you to know that there are a lot of people here supporting you that are here behind you,’” Hannah explained to NBC about the team trips.

The organization is optimistic that within our lifetime we will see a free North Korea and believe what they are doing is helping that progression. Hannah also says that although it seems like it is impossible to make a difference in a country that is virtually impenetrable, through Liberty in North Korea, they are able to educate people on how they can play a role in helping North Koreans.

“I think what the Rescue Teams do is it provides this really unique outlet and opportunity for someone to say, ‘OK, I’ve seen and I’ve heard and I’ve learned about this stuff, and now I want to do something tangible and something real that can actually make an impact. If I can’t change the situation, at the very least, I can maybe change someone’s life and help one person’. I think it’s really helped to put that into a very practical way in which people can be involved in the issue, as opposed to learning about it and feeling helpless that you can’t do anything,” she said.

Watch the full interview with Tina Brown in the video below, and visit the Liberty in North Korea website to learn more about how you can get involved.

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