I'm about to take a road trip... for North Korea

Without question, this is one of the strangest things I’ve done with my life. And I think that’s saying something.

Today I worked a fourteen hour day, made up of practicing a presentation, making lots of phone calls, and loading a van full of boxes of merchandise and informational materials. It’s going to get even weirder in a few days. I’ll be living out of that van. And here’s the kicker. It’ll be to help bring freedom to North Koreans.

For the past month, my world has revolved around learning as much as possible about the country of North Korea and its numerous human rights abuses. I’ve also met a bunch of other people as interested in this issue as much as I am, and that’s led to some really deep friendships taking shape in virtually no time.

It’s unlike anything else I’ve done before.

Months ago, with graduation around the corner, it suddenly occurred to me that I should probably find something to do once school was over. I don’t know why I didn’t think much of this until about April. Something about my world and my life for most of my senior year seemed like it would never end. But it would, and I needed something.

Going straight into a job, working for a corporation on some other entity just didn’t seem like the right fit. My two study abroad stints in college confirmed to me the fact that I still needed some room for travel and adventure in my life, and now that I was unbound by school, I could maybe find some international organization to volunteer for and spend an extended time somewhere afar.

I found Liberty in North Korea through an online search. I bookmarked their page, along with a number of other organizations that seemed to be doing international justice work that I could try and find an opportunity with. When I discovered LiNK’s Nomad opportunity, though, it was clearly written in a language my soul spoke.

Nomads were given the opportunity to travel from state to state, speaking on behalf of the organization at universities, schools, churches, and basically anyone willing to host. They’d be screening a documentary LiNK had put together, helping the organization grow.

Eleven weeks living in a van could sound like torture to a lot of people. Not me. I’d have the opportunity to take a road trip- basically one of my favorite things, and I’d be doing it for the good of the north Korean people. How on earth does that opportunity even exist? There was no way I was going to pass it up.

I applied and went through a couple of interviews. I also started to fundraise. LiNK suggested I raise about $1,000 to cover some basic living expenses, however they mentioned that their supporters would frequently provide food and housing to their nomads while on the road. I got accepted and quickly raised that amount. A GoFundMe page and an Open Mic Night was about all it took.

Soon enough found myself headed towards their headquarters in Torrance.

I walked into the intern house– a three bedroom condo in neighboring Harbor City wearing a large backpack, the contents of which I planned to live off of exclusively for the next four months. A group of my new colleagues and housemates were gathered around a laptop. Gangnam Style played through its speakers.

I was about to get a serious crash course in Korean culture, ranging in everything from North Korean human rights to K-Pop down south.

The intern house was very much reflective of the experience I would get with LiNK. The beat up couches and yellow walls revealed that the people who lived there weren’t creatures of comfort. In front of the door was an overflow of shoes, and the two kitchen refrigerators contained the food twenty two people. We were all poor, though, so it was mostly jars of kimchi. The bookcase was lined with titles that would interest aspiring world-changers, and Shepard Fairey’s large print of Aung San Suu Kyi adorned the wall.

I found the bed I would occupy. Two bunk beds had been placed on opposite walls in a hallway, what was essentially a walk-through foyer to the other two “real” bedrooms, which were outfitted with even more beds. I claimed a bottom bunk and turned it into my own little cave, draping a blanket around its outside.

By the end of that week, I would find myself in that house engaged in an hours-long conversation with my new friends Brett and Jihyun. We would end up talking about God and existential crises and moments in life that shook our beliefs deep into the night. We would talk like we were long time friends. We knew each other for four days at that point.

I suppose LiNK attracted a group of like-minded people who were typically a minority in most other circles.

My world began to form around two distinct locations– that intern house and the office.

While the office was a more professional setting, it still carried the energy and enthusiasm of the people who made up the organization. The brand color red permeated nearly every piece of furniture.

When our training began I immediately fell in love with the organization. It helped that Andrew Bird was playing as we shuffled into the office. I realized that while I had come for the sense of adventure, I was also getting a robust community, and the chance to work for an organization that would raise the bar extremely high for whatever I would do in the future.

Over the next few weeks, I learned more and more about the organization and the work it did. LiNK worked with North Korean refugees who had escaped the country. Most would escape to China, where they’d still be at risk– either of being sent back to face severe punishments, or of being taken advantage of and exploited for sex, labor, and so on. LiNK helped bring these refugees into asylum into a safe country, and into resettlement in the U.S. or South Korea.

LiNK helped fund and orchestrate these rescues. As I learned more and more about the organization, I started to discover that it was extremely intentional about nearly everything. Even the design of the logo, which simply looked like a red box with text, symbolized how change was being driven by the North Koreans from the inside. LiNK worked with refugees because they were one of the few connections between the outside world and the North Korean people, and because it believed North Korea’s path forward should be determined by its people. This organization was all about people, from the relationships that formed between nomads and interns and staff members, to the respectful and dignifying way it treated the people it served.

I was personally impressed by many of the people I met at the organization. Its leaders all embodied different strengths, from professionalism and leadership to ambition to a dedication to one’s convictions.

While I’m having more fun here than I’ve had before, I’m also busier than I’ve ever been. Working these fourteen hour days is something. I’ll then come back to the house where there’s always something going on. I’ll manage to slip away by the end of the day to call my girlfriend, get a few hours of sleep, and be one of the first people awake because I still happen to value having a little bit of alone time.

This isn’t a sustainable way to live. I know it and LiNK knows it, and that’s why this opportunity is only designed for a few months. I spent some of my alone time this morning on the hammock out front, suspended between two trees. The hammock and the couch on the patio were undoubtedly made to accommodate several heart-to-heart conversations.

While I can’t live exactly like this forever– getting little sleep, having no steady finances, and diving headfirst into relationships like there’s no tomorrow, I’m happy I have the chance to right now. If for no other reason than that it’s given me the taste for so many things I’ll want to always have in my life.

I’ll always want to be doing something that contributes to making life better for people. Bonus points if it’s internationally, that’s just where my interests have always lied.

I’ll always want to be working for a team that truly values people. That’s not to say LiNK is perfect in this department. As an organization mostly made up of twenty-somethings, there is a natural learning curve. But at its heart, this is a group of people that knows the value of people. That’s important to me.

I’ll want to be a part of a culture that doesn’t just accept things because that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it’ll always be done. I want people who aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions.

I’ll always need to be surrounded by a community of people with whom I don’t need to explain my values. I’ll want people who understand almost automatically why service and community and adventure are all so important and intertwined.

LiNK has undoubtedly given me some pretty high standards in these departments.

No doubt, this is one of the strangest things I’ve done with my life. And definitely one of the most fun.

Philippe Lazaro2012, LiNK