The smog-filled mugginess of Seoul, South Korea lingered outside of the air-conditioned room. Several American visitors smiled as they entered to meet one of the people they had flown 11 hours to see. Pleasantries and handshakes were exchanged before everyone in the room shuffled to the chairs conveniently placed for a conversation.
Jihyun Roh took his seat next to the woman they came to see. She spoke Korean. Jihyun translated to English. He occasionally connects visitors and supporters from foreign countries as a part of his job as a resettlement coordinator for North Koreans. At first, small talk was exchanged between the two parties. Jihyun rapidly translated the friendly banter. But shortly into the meeting, all the visitors fell silent. The Americans couldn’t hide their emotions provoked by the woman’s accounts. The visitors barely blinked; they were listening so hard. The woman’s history overtook the conversation.
That history started in North Korea and ended in Seoul, where she now lives. Her story in North Korea was traumatic, but what silenced everyone was what happened after.
Jihyun mediated as she explained her journey from a difficult North Korean life to an even worse situation in China. After being smuggled out of North Korea, she reemerged in China and found herself in a room. In the same room was a Chinese broker and several other Chinese men. These men began shouting out numbers, and the broker spat numbers back at the rest of the group. The men crowded as their voices crushed every piece of integrity she had. The numbers were prices. The broker was a human trafficker. And these men were bidding to take her as their bride.
She was sold.
Once that last detailed filled the room, Jihyun felt a tear escape him and drop from his chin.
drop from his chin. He translated her words into English and more tears came. This story, in this room, with these people, overwhelmed him.
This would not be the first time Jihyun experienced an emotional reaction while working. But this moment reintroduced why he shows up to work everyday.
Cafés buzz and hum in Seoul, South Korea. Overstaffed, expensive, crowded, and highly competitive. The café scene reflects the hustle of the city and the country, for that matter. Standing on a corner in Seoul gives an onlooker a glimpse into what the café scene has blossomed into. Within each block sits cafés galore. Cute ones. Tacky ones. Franchised ones. Tiny ones. Four-story ones. Countless café signs poke out onto the street, whispering to passersby that their café is better than the one next door.
In contrast, North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang boasts of only three cafés. Or two, or four, depending on which internet portal one dives into on the subject. The International Coffee Organization (ICO) did a joint study in 2014 with the United Nations on coffee consumption throughout the world and found that South Koreans consume 6.3 pounds of coffee per year. North Koreans averaged less than half a pound of coffee per year.
That is why, when Jihyun sits down at a café in Seoul with a North Korean refugee, something very important has already taken shape as they stir the sugar in their dark roast. They had a choice to meet at any of the hundreds of thousands of cafés, and they very easily did so. The defectors don’t take that choice lightly. They know that having a choice in mundane everyday details is a privilege.
a privilege. Like where to buy coffee they may not have grown up drinking.
Many of these North Korean refugees are at the early stages of integrating within the South Korean culture, social structure, and workforce. The others Jihyun meets are refugees who have been in the country for a long time. Jihyun talks, shares, laughs, cries, and endlessly encourages many refugees in these cafés. He tries to meet closer to where they work or live. That helps accommodate some of them who may not be able to afford to travel otherwise. Nestling into his seat, Jihyun gives his signature smile. Ear to ear, this guy. The resettled North Koreans certainly appreciate the truck load of joy. Miserable faces plagued their time in North Korea. And rightfully so.
North Korea is commonly referred to as the most closed off nation in the world. Its multi-generational dictatorship oppresses its citizens. Reports have exposed the country as using corporal punishment, political prison camps, or death by execution for failing to properly abide by the ruling governing body’s very strict policies. And on top of that, the punishments often impact the “criminal’s” family for up to three generations. To this day, the ruling regime represses basic human rights like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to travel, and open access to the main economic market.
So Jihyun’s broad grin and smiley eyes are more than welcome. He opens up the conversations with questions about life. How is work? How is your apartment? Any updates on your family? The usual. He is not asking these questions as an attempt at small talk. He genuinely wants to know because he wants to help. Jihyun works for a Non-Governmental Organization called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). One of the programs this organization provides is a support system for people who have successfully defected to pursue a life outside of the North Korean regime. LiNK is one of the leading NGOs working to support the people who are being or have been treated inhumanely in North Korea. It aims to shift the dialogue toward the oppressed people living in North Korea and away from a solely geo-political discussion about its nuclear weapons program.
Jihyun’s work gets woven into a jumble of tasks that all aim to support the men and women choosing to live in South Korea after leaving the North. One of his top priorities is taking the time to get to know them and build relationships.
At a café in late fall of last year, Jihyun asked one of the refugees what the best thing about being in South Korea was. The person hardly hesitated. He responded with an answer steeped in sincerity. “The freedom to get an education,” he said.
That struck Jihyun. With everything Jihyun takes for granted, the simple idea of education not being available put his own life and his work with the defector’s life into perspective.
Every refugee's journey is different from point A (leaving North Korea) to point Z (landing in the chosen resettlement country). Most cross the northern border into China and immediately seek asylum with anyone that will take them in. If caught by the Chinese government, they are treated as illegal immigrants and swiftly repatriated to North Korea. At which point, they face severe punishment. If they are able to connect with a group like LiNK that assists in getting them to a Southeast Asian country, they can then acquire the proper documentation to enter a new country as political refugees. Long journeys on buses, trains, boats, and sometimes small planes take defectors over 3,500 miles of underground railroad-style travel in hopes of fleeing an unsympathetic Chinese government. The timeline for these journeys are never concrete and once they arrive at a safe house in the transition countries, they hobble into the reality that they have survived one of the most stressful experiences of their lives.
concrete and once they arrive at a safe house in the transition countries, they hobble into the reality that they have survived one of the most stressful experiences of their lives.
Unfortunately, that experience doesn’t end the moment they set foot in the resettlement country. For those who choose to resettle in South Korea, they must go through an intensive six-month culture class and cross examination to determine that they are not spies. And only after the government deems them safe, they are handed the freedom to reside in the country.
To conclude this very life-threatening venture closes a complex chapter in the refugee’s life that is not always met with parades and welcome banners. Not only do they need to learn a slightly different dialect of the language, but they must also learn about the nuances of a very different culture. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done.
And in steps Jihyun. He provides support for these transitional moments in their lives.
“I learn from them that I take so much for granted,” Jihyun says. “When I ask them about what kind of freedom they appreciate the most, they usually say something like, ‘Being able to study whatever I want to study or travel where I want to travel.’ We have all of these things, but we take it for granted. So they inspire me to appreciate the small things.”
Every time Jihyun waves goodbye after a café chat with a refugee, he reflects on his own life. He can kind of connect to their story but not fully. He tries...tries to connect, to relate, to sympathize, to not pity, to listen, to be in the moment with them. But the bottom line is that Jihyun has never lived in a country that knowingly and openly commits human rights violations to a large majority of its citizens.
These are the same people who wade across a Chinese river hoping an officer isn’t on shore with handcuffs ready. These are the same people who leave mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters in search of a basic right like working a job of their choice only to be on the run (sometimes for several years) before getting out of China. These are the same people who spend several scary nights sleeping in unknown places, only to be met by discrimination from close-minded people who can’t let go of the torrid past between the Koreas.
Jihyun didn’t land in this position by accident. He holds a masters degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration on Intercultural Studies and knows the ins-and-outs of the North Korean topic. And the number of days filled with good news coming out of North Korea remains extremely limited. Yet, the hope he exudes provokes goosebumps when he talks about his work. High notes flutter within every other word as he discusses people he helps. The moment he starts sharing, everything else in the room quiets for Jihyun. His whole body jumps and jolts to help emphasize his opinions about the subject.
Something has permanently stamped his heart, and the desire to help never leaves him.
“I would say Jihyun cares more than the average person has the capacity to care,” Lee, Jihyun’s roommate, says. “He is not just doing a job...I think he really takes the time to emotionally connect.”
Many people don't have the strength to talk about the challenges North Koreans have to endure without feeling hopeless or bleak. At the surface, the near future doesn't look like it will see any significant changes. The current regime isn't showing signs of cooperation. And the number of human rights violations that the country commits isn't decreasing. All of those factors make it difficult for refugees to live a normal life after North Korea.
it difficult for refugees to live a normal life after North Korea. But Jihyun won’t give up. He cares too deeply for these people.
“I really enjoy doing it,” Jihyun confesses. “One of the reasons I love the work I do is because I learn so much from [the refugees]. It is not just me helping them. I constantly get inspired by the North Korean people I work with.”
Jihyun smiles his way to hope, excitement, zeal, and determination anytime he talks about the people he gets to work with. A day never passes without a goofy joke to lighten the mood or several pats on his co-workers’ backs. Jihyun’s joy jogs with him from one meeting to the next no matter what. And the passion he possesses sits at the center of his work.
With all of that being said, however, the question has to be asked: how does this guy work within the context of such a heavy topic and maintain so much joy?
It all started on a bench.
Just before finishing his undergraduate degree as a double major in Sociology and Communications at Chungnam National University just outside of Seoul, Jihyun found himself on a bench, thinking. Defeat stamped his face as he looked out from that bench. The angst of not knowing what to do with his degrees sank in. He had decided to take a year off in an attempt to discover some passion to pursue. He had one semester left but needed time to reevaluate. The benches around campus actually became a common outpost for Jihyun during that year. Thinking. But that thinking eventually led to observing. And the one thing that stood out to him was the lonesome sauntering of the foreign, English-speaking students.
“I still went to the [campus] because I didn’t have anything else to the do,” Jihyun remembers. “And that is when I started to observe things that I didn’t pay attention to [before]. And one day, I was just sitting on a bench on campus, and I started seeing international students. I didn’t know we had that many international students on campus. But I also felt very strange seeing them not communicate with the Korean students. And I wanted to get to know them.”
This moment really stands out to Jihyun because, at that time, he had started to dive back into a life of faith. He grew up going to church but college placed other elements of life in front of his faith. And then, a slight desire to renew that faith prompted him to start praying about his future. So, yes, he sat on those benches thinking, but also praying. And in the midst of that time, the thing that kept coming up in his thoughts was how badly he wanted different cultures to understand each other and then strive for peace.
“That is when I started to develop a heart for people who live outside of Korea,” he says. “I really wanted to help them better understand the culture, so that Koreans and foreign nationals would be able to live together in peace.”
Looking back at these moments, Jihyun sternly professes that it was all God. The next few years unfolded with unprecedented ease. He pretty much strolled through one open door after the other.
Through those foreign friends, he landed a translation gig in America. Through that gig, he eventually met the dean of Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. Through that meeting, Jihyun applied for a full scholarship to the university’s graduate assistant program and got it. Through that program, Jihyun attained a Masters in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in International Studies. And with that degree, he discovered one very important fact about himself: he wanted to bridge the gap between cultures.
At that point in 2012, Jihyun had any number of choices floating before him.
him. Following his graduation, he applied to over 40 different organizations falling under the International Relations umbrella. With so many applications floating through the ether, Jihyun felt stranded on a deserted island, just waiting for a rescue boat to putt-putt on by.
Meanwhile, Jihyun decided to attend “Passion,” a popular Christian evangelical conference, in Atlanta, Georgia. Days leading into the conference, Jihyun dove into prayer. He laid in his bed at night, closing his eyes to disperse any distraction, and sent up simple prayers to God. Jesus, show me where to go. Lord, when I walk away from this conference, I would love to know what passion You want me to pursue. Night after night, Jihyun laid these prayers out. He didn’t know what would happen, but he certainly anticipated something big.
“Even before I went there, I was very expectant that God would give me a vision for what I could do after I graduated from grad school,” Jihyun remembers. “And God answered my prayer so powerfully.”
On the last night of the three-day conference, Jihyun stood elbow to elbow in the Georgia Dome, looking up at the stage. The speaker paced back and forth, pummeling the mic with facts about people living in North Korea. Jihyun’s heart rate jumped as people in the crowd started yelling “Amen!” back at the stage. Some people clapped, some people swayed back and forth, and Jihyun couldn’t help but sense a change in the atmosphere. The crowd began eagerly stirring while the speaker continued on about North Korea. Finally, the speaker asked the crowd to pray for the nation. Without hesitation, over 40,000 college-aged people belted out prayers for Jihyun’s neighboring nation. He glanced back and forth, bewildered. These people had no connection to this country and yet they longed for God to intervene. For Jesus to protect the oppressed people.
to protect the oppressed people. If these people who live on the other side of the world could see those in North Korea as God’s children in need, Jihyun certainly could too.
“I am from South Korea, and I didn’t really understand why they cared about this so much,” Jihyun says. “But God convicted me, and He compelled me to do something about this issue. And I knew that that was God’s answer to my prayer. I took it as a vision for doing something for North Korea.”
Amidst the boisterous praying all around him, Jihyun knew he needed to dive into the lives of the North Korean people. And just like that, God birthed a passion in Jihyun.
But that type of moment is very common at those large conferences. The jubilant expression of faith is intensified by so many people participating. And everyone walks away feeling excited or motivated to change something. People walk out of those doors ready to take on any and all challenges that might plague their day-to-day lives. But that conviction can often disappear by the time Monday rolls around and it's time to go back to work.
Jihyun, on the other hand, felt that spark in him and started asking the question, “What now?” He knew that it was an opportunity to follow a path set by God. And because of that, Jihyun’s confidence also stuck around after the conference. That realization dove to the depths of Jihyun’s thoughts and prayers. He knew he would be working with the oppressed people of North Korea. He just knew it...
“I applied for more than 40 different jobs and only LiNK got back to me after I applied for one of their internships...that's when I realized God wanted me to go from California to Pennsylvania to start working at LiNK and for North Korean people,” Jihyun states.
That spark led Jihyun to the countless conversations he gets to have with the North Korean refugees.
Back in the room with the American visitors, Jihyun wiped the tears as the conversation came to an end. As he translated “thank you’s” and “goodbye’s”, gratitude ran through his body. The refreshing feeling of knowing he was in the right place, at the right time, settled in. He was reminded of why he does what he does.
“I have heard a lot of crazy and tragic stories from [the refugees] for a long time,” Jihyun says. “But this time, when I was translating this very painful story, for some reason, I started crying. And I had to translate this crazy stuff, and when I saw the visitors being heartbroken, I felt the same way. I was reminded of why I decided to work on this issue...to work for the North Korean people.”
Jihyun possesses something many people with his 32 years of life don’t: intense empathy. The connection he feels to the people of North Korea remains that of someone bent on helping them. Working to provide opportunities for them. And at the end of the day, these are his people. Jihyun stands on the side of this issue that calls for both Koreas to be recognized as one, like they were over 80 years ago. He feels like being South Korean makes him no different than those born in North Korea. They are connected.
“I think there is a large amount of respect around how he handles the defectors we work with,” Julian, a volunteer at LiNK who often works with Jihyun, says. “We just know that he will handle it well. He always makes the situation light and fun, but he’s serious when he needs to be...I couldn’t think of anybody better to be out there.”
situation light and fun, but he’s serious when he needs to be...I couldn’t think of anybody better to be out there.”
Seeing a need for people he considers brothers and sisters and acting on that need. Empathy. It drives his work and the passion that gets him out of bed daily. And at the center of that is Jesus cheering him on. Guiding him through some of the tough moments. Taking the burden of an overworked day and providing a blanket of grace, so Jihyun can continue the next day.
In the end, there is no way to guarantee any substantial change amid the very complex issue of North Korea. And in many ways, the idea of overcoming these complexities appears futile. But for a person like Jihyun, hope is just one coffee shop meeting away.
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