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Helping North Korean Refugees Resettle

Tom Barker has focused on helping North Korean refugees resettle in the United States, using his legal expertise to assist North Korean refugees with such matters as their immigration status and health care.

Article by Tom Barker March 14, 2017 //   8 minute read

Tom Barker is a partner and co-chair of the healthcare practice at the Washington, D.C. offices of Foley Hoag, a Boston-based law firm.  He served in a series of high-level health care policy posts during the administration of President George W. Bush, including serving as acting general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services.

While his practice today focuses on the complex issues of health care law, Tom has developed a deep interest in the plight of North Korea.  He has focused on helping North Korean refugees resettle in the United States, using his legal expertise to assist North Korean refugees with such matters as their immigration status and health care.

We spoke to Tom about how and why he became interested in North Korea and what he’s doing to improve the lives of North Koreans.

What inspired you to get involved with North Korean refugees?  

I’ve been fascinated about North Korea for years, probably going back to when Kim Il-Sung died in 1994.  This was a few years before the first famine.

As the years went by, the world learned more about the starvation, deprivation of human rights, political prison camps, and lack of any freedom of speech, dissent, and religion inside North Korea.  I wanted to do and learn more.

I got involved with the North Korean Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C. and started supporting organizations like the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.  As more information became available I read more. The movie Crossing, which came out in 2008, was pivotal to my desire to do more to support the cause of North Korean freedom.  I was fortunate to see that movie at a film festival and got to attend a lecture from the director.  It was eye-opening.

There is also a personal reason.  My father served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.  Helping to support North Korean freedom is a way that I can honor his memory.

As I got more involved, I began to meet North Korean defectors living in the United States, many of whom were here because of the North Korean Human Rights Act that President Bush signed in October 2004.  Hearing their stories made me want to do more.

What kind of assistance have you rendered?  

I have tried to help North Korean defectors in a couple of ways.  I’ve helped form five nonprofit organizations devoted to North Korean human rights, and I’ve assisted them in obtaining 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. I give them legal advice from time to time, as needed.  

For the past five years, I’ve also helped 20 North Korean defectors obtain their green cards or U.S. citizenship, and that work seems to be picking up.  I do not charge any of these clients for my services.  It’s all pro bono.

I’m a health care lawyer by training.  This is my way of giving back for all the blessings that I’ve been given in my life.

What are some of the challenges refugees face in adapting to life in the United States?  

The hardest is assimilating to the culture.  That includes being unfamiliar with the concepts of capitalism, not being able to speak English, and not understanding how things work in the United States.

For example, simple things that you or I take for granted, like opening a bank account or getting a driver’s license can be unfathomable to a North Korean defector.  Another difficulty is navigating the health care system.    

There are some great nonprofits that help North Korean defectors learn these basic things.  I’ve also seen that North Korean defectors who are already living here are so generous with their time to help newer arrivals.  That’s inspiring.  What’s also inspiring is how North Korean defectors want to learn and get an education.

Are there challenges unique to North Korean refugees? 

North Korean defectors have some unique medical needs. They arise from malnutrition, possible beatings from the North Korean secret police, and undiagnosed medical conditions.  Getting those conditions addressed, especially when the defector only speaks Korean, is a challenge.

I know defectors who have dental problems because they’ve never seen a dentist in their life.  I know others who have orthopedic problems because they were forced to work in coal mines or perform other manual labor that has caused medical problems.  And of course, psychological trauma affects many North Koreans, especially those who lived in political prison camps and might have been forced to witness executions or other horrific events.

From your observations, how are most of the North Koreans in the United States faring?  

Amazingly well.  They have an enormous desire to learn.  Many of the defectors whom I’ve been privileged to meet seem to be adjusting well.  They love our country.  They love that we have the freedom to worship, to criticize our government.  

But some face psychological trauma and that poses barriers to full integration in American society.  Fortunately, there are options to help.

Why should Americans care about the issue of North Korean human rights?

Americans have been blessed with freedom.  To quote President Bush, freedom is not for us alone:  it is the right and capacity of all human beings. 

Following that logic, it seems to me that we, as Americans, have an obligation to do all that we can to advance the cause of human freedom.  The cause of human freedom in North Korea is inextricably linked to the security threat that North Korea poses to South Korea, Japan, the Pacific region, and the United States.  If we solve the human freedom problem, we solve the security problem.

Are there any anecdotes you can share about particular individuals and their stories?

There are so many.  One defector opened his own sushi restaurant in upstate New York.  Another saw her mom visit a dentist for the first time and that inspired her to become a dental technician and maybe go to dental school herself.  Another has devoted her life to rescuing defectors who are escaping through China by connecting them with Christian missionaries.

One defector I know is going to school in Chicago and has an amazing talent for writing – even though English is obviously not his first language.  He showed me a short story he’d written for his English class and I was blown away by how powerful his writing was.

Last year, I attended a naturalization ceremony for a North Korean defector in Chicago.  The judge who swore her in was Korean-American, and I introduced my defector client to him.  He had never met a North Korean before.  That was an interesting experience.

To me, they are all inspirational in their own way.

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