North Korea Freedom Scholarship 2021: An Inside Look

Learn more about Joseph Kim.
Joseph Kim
Associate and Expert-in-Residence, Freedom and Democracy
George W. Bush Institute

Joseph Kim, the Bush Institute's Assistant and Expert in Residence on the Human Freedom Initiative, discusses the 2021 North Korea Freedom Scholarship and what the program means to him.

North Korean refugees who find freedom in America face a wide range of challenges after they arrive. 

They have already survived a dangerous and difficult journey just to be here: North Korea has one of the world’s most closed and oppressive societies, and there is no freedom of movement. For example, visiting a relative in another town would require the local government’s permission. Getting out of the country entirely is much, much harder. 

For those who do manage to escape, there is a pathway to a new life in freedom in the United States thanks to the North Korean Human Rights Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2004. But once here, North Korean refugees resettled in the United States often have difficulties living up to their full potential, in part because of a lack of access to education. Many refugees forgo opportunities to continue their education because of a lack of financial stability.  

The George W. Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative established the North Korea Freedom Scholarship program in 2017 to help North Korean escapees who are permanently living in the United States realize and maximize their potential through higher education.  

The North Korea Freedom Scholarship “is one of my favorite programs at the Bush Center,” President George W. Bush has said. “The idea of welcoming people who have escaped tyranny is something very important to us … and should be important to the American people. And one way we can help is to take ambitious, smart young people and allow them to broaden their horizons.” 

Since its inception, the program has supported 26 refugees, granting a total of $168,500 in the form of 48 scholarships. During the pandemic and the subsequent global economic hardship, the Bush Institute increased the size of the annual award totals to $50,000 from $25,000 for 2020 and 2021 recipients.  

Today, some of our recipients attend renowned institutions, including Columbia University, the University of Southern California, and George Washington University. The Bush Institute is very proud of the recipients for who they are and who they are becoming. Interested candidates will be able to apply for the next round of awards in early January 2022. The application will be available on the Freedom in North Korea page on the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s website. 

The Bush Institute’s Human Freedom team is also advocating U.S. national security policy that promotes human rights in North Korea. Our recommendations for Congress and the Biden Administration  crafted by Dr. Victor Cha, Bush Institute Senior Fellow for Human Freedom, and Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative – also include incorporating human rights into any future negotiations with North Korea, nominating and confirming key personnel to advance our goals on the Korean Peninsula, and opening the door for more North Korean refugees to resettle in the United States.  

I was one of the first recipients of the North Korea Freedom Scholarship, and I remain very grateful to President Bush and this Institute.  I take my part in managing the program seriously because it’s an opportunity to support my friends and also a privilege to be part of their success stories. I also appreciate the opportunity to be part of the wonderful Human Freedom Initiative, which has a life-changing impact on the lives of North Korean refugees and people around the world.