’People Over Politics’: Shifting the narrative on North Korea

Grace Ozor

Government senior Jason Guidangen knows what people think when they hear the words “North Korea.”

“A lot of people’s conceptions of North Korea are primarily focused on Kim Jong Un, nukes and sort of high-level politics,” Guidangen said.

As president of Liberty in North Korea Texas, Guidangen hopes to help change this narrative to focus on those affected.

LiNK Texas’ motto is “People Over Politics.” The nonprofit, which has chapters at universities across the country, strives to raise both awareness and money for North Korean citizens.

Cera Houston, psychology sophomore and secretary for LiNK Texas, believes many people have misconceptions about North
Koreans’ attitudes toward their government.

“People think they’re some sort of mind-controlled cult that follows (Kim Jong Un) wholeheartedly,” Houston said. “Obviously, that’s not the case.”

Many North Koreans turned against the government in response to a famine in the 1990s which is estimated to have killed between 240,000 to 2 million citizens. The government’s failure to provide food for its citizens, Houston said, led to North Koreans forming black markets known as jangmadangs to supply daily necessities.

“It’s important to realize that (North Koreans) figure it out themselves,” Houston said.

LiNK Texas strives to change students’ perceptions of North Korea in a variety of ways. At weekly meetings, they frequently show documentaries about the lives of North Koreans.

Every semester the group hosts an awareness day to inform students about different aspects of North Korean society. At their most recent awareness day, the club set up its own market to teach students about the concept of jangmadangs. LiNK Texas also raises money for their parent group through weekly fundraisers in which they commonly sell lemonade and fried Oreos on Speedway.

The international nonprofit uses the funds to run a modern day underground railroad that helps North Korean refugees get to neutral Southeast Asian countries after they have escaped to China. The money also helps refugees resettle in South Korea. 

“My indirect contribution to helping that occur is incredibly powerful,” Guidangen said.

Members of the club also have the opportunity to meet some of the refugees their money has aided.

Several years ago, a small group traveled to South Korea to talk to North Koreans who had escaped using the underground railroad. LiNK Texas has also invited North Korean refugees to campus speaking engagements.

Government senior Robert Gonzalez, who has been in the club since his freshman year, said he believes these personal interactions are the most powerful part of being in the club.

“With a lot of other organizations that raise funds for causes, sometimes you get to see the end result, sometimes you don’t,” Gonzalez said. ”With LiNK, we are seeing where our money goes to. We are actually meeting face to face, shaking hands with, asking questions to the people our efforts helped.”

The club hopes to gain more active members and continue to raise money in the near future, but Gonzalez said he hopes at some point the club will no longer be necessary.

“The ultimate goal (is) that there will come a time where North Koreans will not have to travel this underground railroad to reach freedom,” Gonzalez said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported how the funds LiNK raises are used. The Texan regrets this error.