Roseville woman helps those escaping from brutal North Korean regime

Casey Lartique and Hyon Kim. (Pamela O’Meara)

The well-fed, rotund leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who travels on his own train, stands in sharp contrast to his starving citizens, who have a hard time scraping out a living in the extremely poor country. 

It’s a hard place to live. It’s also a difficult place from which to escape.

I remember a decade ago standing at the DMZ — the barren border between North Korea and South Korea — looking out to see what we were told was a fake village, built to make South Koreans think the North was prosperous instead of desperately poor.

Roseville resident Hyon Kim held an April 15 meeting to discuss the difficult route of escaping North Korea and what happens next for refugees. She left the peninsula years ago after the country was divided following the Korean War. Her family was permanently split up in the process. She eventually moved to Minnesota, where she is now a successful businesswoman and American citizen.

It’s also no secret that the North Korean regime is brutal and repressive, and escaping is very difficult — nearly impossible. A few do make it out after crossing miles of desert and mountains, but may face sex trafficking, forced marriage or torture. If trying to escape through nearby China, they are likely to be sent back to North Korea.

Hyon keeps in touch with refugees through Midwest Alliance for North Korean refugees, the nonprofit she started. It aims to educate and advocate for their human rights, so they can become productive citizens. Lynn Scott is the executive director.

Casey Lartigue Jr., the dynamic co-founder and co-director of Teach North Korean Refugees, was Hyon’s guest speaker at her Roseville event.

Based in South Korea, Lartique holds an M. A. from Harvard University, and is an author and guest speaker who has appeared on National Public Radio, at the National Press Club, Cato Foundation and before the U. K Parliament. He was involved in sending balloons carrying CDs about the U.S.A. to North Korea, and is on Kim Jong-un’s enemy list. 

Hyon said she considers him her hero.

Some 32,467 North Koreans, 72 percent female, had made it out of North Korea as of 2018. The dangerous escape through China or other Southeast Asian countries is only the first battle. 

Learning English is very important, as is public speaking, in order to get a job in the U.S. So is dealing with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder — mental health is a priority for Teach North Korean Refugees, Lartique said.

The organization is one of several national or international groups that help defectors. Since its founding in 2013, it has helped 410 refugees with intensive, one-to-one English language tutoring, Lartique said. Fifty-five percent of those in the program are students who learn about it by word of mouth. 

While in South Korea, I remember being at the DMZ and stopping at the Peace Train platform. It was new, but had sat empty for years waiting for traffic to once again go back and forth across the border.

And I remember stopping at Freedom Altar, which symbolizes the wish of Koreans to reunify the country. It is also a place of prayer for the souls of ancestors buried in North Korea. Behind the altar we could see the white, wooden Freedom Bridge. After the armistice agreement in 1953, 5 million North Koreans fled south across the footbridge to escape the Communists before the border closed.

It seems like not much has changed today in the North, while South Korea’s vibrant capitol, Seoul, rivals Chicago. 

The North Koreans are still poverty-stricken, and Kim Jon-un is as brutal as his father, starving his citizens. But Hyon Kim, along with Casey Lartique, is helping North Koreans make a new life, if they can manage to escape.


–Pamela O’Meara can be reached at

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