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Documentary draws attention to refugees

Anna Boarini | Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is helping break the silence that has defined North Korean refugees’ lives, according to intern and program nomad Stephen Erich.

LiNK arrives at Saint Mary’s College on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Vander Vennet theater to show the documentary “Hiding,” a film that focuses on refugees in China and Southeast Asia.

Erich travels around the Midwest with three other nomads spreading the word and showing the documentary.

“Every season, spring and fall, we do awareness tours where we travel around for 10 weeks,” Erich said. “We show a documentary and talk about what’s going on.”

Erich said the film is interesting because it gives background on North and South Korea and covers current events, all while telling the North Korean refugees’ stories.

“Every month or so, we have a mission where we bring out a number of refugees, and that August we had a mission where we brought out four refugees,” he said. “The vice president and our film guy went to China to follow the mission through the underground, so ‘Hiding’ tells the story of those four refugees and has personal interviews with three of the four.”

LiNK was founded in 2004 by Korean-American students who wanted to make a difference, Erich said.

“There was a Korean-American student conference at Yale, and the students watched a documentary [about North Korea] and they all got inspired to do something about what is going on in North Korea,” Erich said. “So they started LiNK, and it spread out from there across the nation.”

Now, LiNK operates on college campuses and high schools across the country.

“It started out as a bunch of pockets across the U.S. and has grown into a more organized movement,” Erich said.

LiNK is not just an organization that brings awareness. It actively seeks to bring North Korean refugees to safety, he said.

“We work directly with refugees. We provide emergency relief to North Korean refugees,” he said. “We do that through an underground railroad-type thing in China, and then we have a shelter in Southeast Asia and we resettle the refugees in the U.S. and South Korea.”

Erich said there are three classifications of people in North Korea: loyal, wavering and disloyal.

“The loyal class [members] — they live in Pyongyang —have access to resources, are educated. The wavering class lives out in the country, and the disloyal class [members] could be in political prison or live on the outskirts, near the border with China,” he said.

Because North Korea is governed by a totalitarian regime that seeks to control every aspect of North Korean government and society, the regime does not take care of the disloyal class members. They are very often the refugees LiNK helps, Erich said.

“They’re just trying to survive,” he said.

Once the refugees make it out of China and into Southeast Asia to the LiNK shelter, they are given the skills and education they need to live on their own outside of North Korea.

Due to security issues, the Southeast Asian country where the shelter is located cannot be named, Erich said.

“While they are in our shelter, we try to educate them as much as we can,” he said. “They can spend anywhere from a month, eight months, 10 months [or a] year in our shelter. While they’re in the shelter, we teach them skills like money handling skills, culture — how to live on their own.”

LiNK also educates and informs the refugees about returning to South Korea or going to the U.S. The refugees then decide which country they want to live in, Erich said.

In the last two years, LiNK has helped 62 North Koreans reach safety. Overall, the organization has helped 72 refugees find a new home.