On Easter Sunday, I had the privilege of interviewing Andrew Hong, Founder and President of ENoK (“Emancipate North Koreans”), a non-profit organization with a mission to embrace, empower, and emancipate North Koreans in the United States and other parts of the world. Based in Hyde Park, Chicago, ENoK recruits many of its volunteers from the University of Chicago, of which Hong is an alumnus (A.B. ’11). Recently, ENoK’s biggest project has been “Empower House,” a free mini boarding college-preparatory institution for North Korean refugees. Empower House currently operates as a home and tutoring center for five young refugees who aspire to pursue higher education but have been unable to do so because of immediate financial needs. Hong explains why he founded ENoK and how it is different from other North Korean refugee-related organizations.
Hannah: How did you first become interested in helping North Korean defectors?
AH: When I was growing up in Korea in the ‘90s, I remember hearing about the Great Famine in North Korea, the first Inter-Korean Summit, and North Koreans escaping from prison camps. Back then, it did not seem very relevant to me. Then in college, I volunteered at a non-profit organization for the first time. It was a place on the West Side of Chicago that helped people who were struggling to get back on their feet. Around that time, I saw a news story about two siblings from North Korea who were discriminated from the workplace and socially outcast. I was shocked that after risking their lives to come to a “free country,” they ended up living in a tent, ostracized from society. I thought that somewhere like the place I was volunteering at could help people like those siblings. At the time, it was just a thought that crossed my mind. Then a few months later, during my study-abroad in France, I had a dream. I had been struggling spiritually because what I believed in and the way I was living was so different. I had always wanted to help others, but I never went out of my comfort zone to do anything. That might explain why I had this dream. In short, God came into my dream and said that I give up 70 percent of what I had—excluding tithe! With the dream still vivid, I visited the U.S. cemetery in Normandy. Most of the fallen soldiers had been in their early twenties like me. I felt really convicted. They had given up their lives for the liberty of their people, but I had used everything I owned for myself. I realized I needed to change. After we got back, I started doing research about North Korea and eventually started ENoK.
Hannah: How is ENoK different from other organizations that help North Korean refugees?
AH: A lot of existing organizations rescue people, run shelters in China, raise funds to send to North Korean defectors, and raise awareness for human rights, but what I had in mind was very specific. Once North Korean refugees come to the U.S., they have nothing to do with South Korea. Unlike in South Korea, in the U.S., North Korean refugees are only a very small population, so they are not a priority. Working multiple shifts to send back money to family in North Korea, many refugees cannot make time to invest in themselves. Their education was often stopped because they started working early and spent time hiding in China, but some of them had a real yearning for education. So we wanted to offer a boost of 1-2 years of intensive learning where they could solely focus on studying and get a GED and prepare for college, which is how we started Empower House. As a group of students and recent graduates familiar with the college-preparatory process, we thought this is what we are best at at this moment and something we probably can do better than other organizations. Also, having lived in a boarding school for eight years, I was familiar with how to run a structured, communal living environment. The most important thing for us was not to give one-time help but to help them succeed on their own. We therefore emphasize how to get access to information.
Hannah: Where do you see this organization in five years? In ten years?
AH: Our program is currently for single and mostly young people, but we’re hoping to also accommodate those who are older and married in the near future. In the long run, we hope that the youth we work with not only make a good living but also observe and learn the civic-mindedness of the staff. Ultimately, I’d like to go to North Korea with ENoK members to do educational work that fits the needs of the people there.
Hannah Park/Intern Reporter, Chicago University