How can the international community help North Korea’s people?

In July 2015, I joined a volunteer program here in South Korea called Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) which, over the course of my time here, has expanded tremendously. TNKR has recently joined forces with the American Orientalism University which will better enable the organization to grow, but more importantly be a sustainable NGO. So, since I joined, I tutor 3 students which sometimes drops to 2 depending on university/work commitments.


As I mentioned, TNKR has been expanding over the past year and last Sunday, along with its partners, TNKR held an International Volunteers Workshop at South Korea’s National Assembly. The workshop was designed to inform both the foreign (which included registration from 33 different countries) and Korean communities on volunteer opportunities availible to them in order to help North Korean defectors living in the South. The workshop started with a lecture from Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert in the field of North Korean studies. He currently works at Kookmin University, Seoul and studied in Pyongyang, North Korea in the 1980’s. What I found most interesting was Lankov’s matter-of-fact approach to the regime and his thoughts about unification were brutally honest, but in some way refreshing. So, here’s what I learnt from the day:

Initially a military division, known as the 38th Parallel, roughly sketched on a National Geographic map, has lasted to be one of the most famous yet disparate divisions of present times. Kim il sung, a guerilla type, fought for an independent Korea and soon rose to form a dictatorship out of North Korea. Wanting a stricter and more ordered regime than the Soviet’s had adopted, North Korea broke relations with the Soviet Union in the 1950’s. However, in the 1990’s the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that North Korea lost any finanical support from them.

South of the border, South Korea was flourishing, during the 1960’s through to the 1990’s, it had one of the fastest developing economies in the world, and now one of Asia’s richest countries. The North, worried about its people knowing of the South’s success became more tightly controlled and montiored. During the 90’s North Korea experienced a famine which led to hundreds of thousands to millions of deaths through starvation (exact figures not known). During the 1970’s North Korea started to develop its nuclear weapons. Due to the lack of reliable information flow in and out of the country, today’s speculations about its nuclear capability are just that, speculations. Lankov stresses that North Korea does not want a war, and neither does South Korea. A more pressing issue is the sanctions imposed by the UN since its recent nuclear testing. Enforcing these sanctions will always affect the common man, and restricting trade could have devastating impacts on the people who suffer from the inequalities of this regime.


What does Lankov suggest? He believes that unification will not be a decision, but a process beyond the power of us and it certainly won’t be peaceful. He suggests opening 2 or 3 more industrial zones, just like Kaesong and lift the sanctions enforced by the UN. He believes for an easier adjustment, the US, China, South Korea and Japan to name a few, should actively encourage the education of North Koreans on market, trade, culture and knowledge about the world.

So that’s where volunteers come in. There are many organizations that people can get involved with to help North Koreans who have defected (and believe me, their escapes are more often than not horrifying). I heard from a few NGO’s throughout the course of the day, but here are a few that people can look into for information and volunteer opportunities:

Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) –

Justice For North Korea (JFNK) –

Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG)-

Unification Media Group (UMG) –

International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) –

Korean Air Line Hijacking of 1969 – information

Report Centre for North Korean Refugees –



“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”- Nelson Mandela




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