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My journey from North Korea to Columbia University

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Lee Seo-hyun/ Courtesy of Casey Lartigue
Lee Seo-hyun/ Courtesy of Casey Lartigue

By Lee Seo-hyun

On March 22nd, I received an email from Columbia University.

I logged on to check: had I been accepted? My heart was beating fast, and my hands were sweating. I clicked "view updates" and closed my eyes.

The first word that I saw when I opened my eyes was: "Welcome to SIPA" (the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University). Yes, I was accepted into my dream graduate school. It was one of the most exciting and happy moments in my life. However, that happiness didn't last long. Because I began to face the reality of the expensive tuition.

I never imagined that I would have this kind of opportunity in North Korea's "eternal enemy", the United States of America. Less than a decade ago, I was still brainwashed by the North Korean regime.

I was born and raised in North Korea's capital of Pyongyang. I was loyal to the regime, even after I had begun to have some doubts about the system. However, my belief and hope in the Kim regime completely vanished when many friends and their families were executed and sent to political prison camps.

I witnessed my best friend who was so loyal to the regime get dragged away. I will never forget receiving a text message from her saying "I don't think I can come back to school." Anger and resentment against the regime filled my body. I realized how desperately my country was in need of change.

About a year later, I escaped to South Korea and after that moved to the United States. I began volunteering behind the scenes for various North Korean causes, especially in the area of human rights violations. Then, working with different entities and organizations, I began engaging in strategically disseminating information to North Koreans. In the last three years, I started speaking out publicly to raise awareness of North Korean human rights violations. Most recently, I spoke at TEDx UCLA.

Through my last couple of years of activism, I learned the necessity of examining North Korea issues in a larger global context. When I first began my activism, the solution to the root of all the problems related to North Korea seemed to be simple: change the Kim regime. However, the more I experienced, the more I learned that it's much more complicated. Therefore, I decided to go to school in America to have a deeper knowledge of international relations in order to tackle the North Korea issues effectively.

When I read the acceptance letter from Columbia University, I thought about how I have gone from helping behind the scenes, engaging in information dissemination and public speaking, and now having this opportunity to begin a new phase of activism for the freedom of North Koreans.

I'm going to study International Affairs at Columbia (concentrating on International Security Policy and International Finance and Economic Policy.) I hope this formal education will equip me with a deeper knowledge of North Korea issues - all with the goal of one day freeing North Koreans from the grips of a dictator and bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula, and furthermore, the regional area.

Only one month left until classes start, I am now frantically raising money from scholarships, grants, and other funding opportunities that were available (such as the Bush Foundation, Freedom Speakers International, LiNK, SIPA admissions and others). I have also set up a GoFundMe.

I cannot continue my journey freeing North Koreans from the oppressive regime without your help. When the time comes, I will "pay it forward," and pass on the same love and support that you have shown me.

Casey Lartigue, co-founder along with Lee Eun-koo of Freedom Speakers International and co-author with Han Song-mi of Greenlight to Freedom, edited this text for publication.

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