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Hope is a Strategy for Freedom in North Korea

Following an advocacy workshop for North Korean refugees hosted at the Bush Institute, Deputy Director of Freedom and Democracy, Christopher Walsh, explains why we can't dismiss hope as a powerful strategy for freedom in North Korea.

Article by Chris Walsh September 13, 2022 //   4 minute read
North Korean refugees gather during an advocacy workshop hosted at the George W. Bush Institute on Sept. 8, 2022.

Some say that hope isn’t a strategy. I disagree. Hope is a full contact sport that requires commitment and action.

My colleague Joseph Kim is a prime example as to why. From a young age, Joseph was forced to fend for himself on the streets of North Korea. He watched his father die of starvation. And he last saw his sister decades ago when she left for China in search of food.

And yet, he hasn’t given up hope of seeing her again or of helping the 25 million North Koreans who have been enslaved by the Kim regime.

The Bush Institute joined forces with Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) to host North Korean refugees in Dallas for an advocacy workshop. Participants included recipients of the Bush Institute’s Lindsay Lloyd Freedom in North Korea Scholarship and the newest cohort of LiNK’s Advocacy Fellowship.

Having escaped one of the most repressive regimes on Earth, this inspiring group has resettled in the United States and South Korea to start new lives. Now, as they begin again in free countries, these refugees want to develop the skills needed to be a voice for those who still suffer back home. 

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During one session, I interviewed Joseph about his journey. He explained how he goes on long walks at night and listens to Chinese-language podcasts. He’s driven to improve his Mandarin. No, it’s not to make himself more marketable to international corporations with business interests in China.

Joseph believes his sister is alive, still stuck in China after all these years.  He’s honing his language skills so that, when he is ultimately reunited with his sister, he can communicate with potential nieces, nephews, and a brother-in-law who may not speak Korean.

Try keeping dry eyes after hearing that. Joseph’s revelation also reminded me of something Arthur Brooks wrote on the difference between optimism and hope. As Brooks says, “optimism is the belief that things will turn out all right; hope makes no such assumption but is a conviction that one can act to make things better in some way.”

Brooks provides three concrete steps for practicing hope: First, “imagine a better future, and detail what makes it so”; second, “envision yourself taking action”; and finally, “act.”

It’s a simple, beautiful formula that Joseph lives on his evening walks. Many North Korean refugees are doing the same whenever they share their stories.

We might lament the “hopelessness” of North Koreans languishing under an intractable regime. Consider, however, the amazing determination of the human spirit, of hope, demonstrated by the North Korean refugees attending our workshop and around the world. Whether it was hunger or love that drove them, they envisioned a pathway to something better, and then risked their lives to escape a totalitarian state. They are the personification of hope.

That’s why their stories are so important. We can’t help but be moved by what they have endured, lost, and gained in their journeys to freedom. They demonstrate what is possible and help us imagine what more can be done. The next step is to act.

It can be the smallest things.  Listen to their stories. Share them. Support organizations like the Bush Institute or LiNK who are working to improve the human condition in North Korea.

Hope is such an important part of the strategy on North Korea. Don’t dismiss its power.

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