Politics & Policy

Liberty in North Korea Leads People to Freedom

A North Korean farmer pushes his bike along the North Korean-Chinese border near Dadong, 2009. (Nir Elias/Reuters)
This writer has made important contributions to that effort.

Bethany Mandel is a bit of a marvel, who has experienced a great deal in her young life. In her writing, and even on social media, she exudes a wisdom and fearlessness beyond her years, along with a sense of humor that is sometimes (beautifully) biting. She is an editor at Ricochet and writes for The Forward and has a podcast with her husband, Seth, who is an editor at the New York Post. (Here she is writing about suicide, for instance.) She’s also has a deep and open heart for the Korean people. We talk a little about that, and more, in the context of President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un this past week.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s on your mind in the wake of Donald Trump’s meeting in Singapore?

Bethany Mandel: It’s been profoundly disappointing, bordering on disturbing, watching our president whitewash just how truly awful Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government are, seeing him salute a general, and more. I have hope that President Trump is brash enough to frighten the North Koreans into submission, but it doesn’t fill me with confidence that right at the outset of these negotiations he seems to have turned into an apologist for a ruthless dictatorship.

Lopez: How did you get involved with North Korea at all, never mind very specifically fundraising for the group Liberty in North Korea?

Mandel: When I was a young girl, I first learned about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. I was alive, and my mother was an adult. What I knew of genocide was all history — namely the Holocaust — but this massacre of innocents had occurred on what I thought of as my mother’s watch. How could my mother — who I thought of as the most moral, most powerful person I knew — do nothing?

Of course, my single mother living on Long Island and working 60 hours a week as a social worker for developmentally disabled adults couldn’t have done anything, but at my age, I didn’t realize that. When I started reading more about the human-rights abuses in North Korea, my husband and I were trying to start a family. I pictured my children asking me, as I had asked my mother, “What did you do to stop it?” and so I decided to try to do something.

In my reading, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) kept coming up among refugees who made it out, and they credited the organization with ushering them to safety from the North Korean border in China to safety in the West. I decided to open a GoFundMe and just see if I could rescue one refugee with my Twitter followers. We were able to raise the $2500 in a week or so. That was five years ago, and since then I’ve done a dozen or more fundraisers tied to the news cycle or holidays and have raised probably $100,000 on Twitter alone — enough to rescue over 30 refugees. [See here for the latest.]

Lopez: What’s Liberty in North Korea all about? How has it helped people? What have you learned from it?

Mandel: Liberty in North Korea has teams on the ground in China, right over the border from North Korea. When refugees are able to make it over, they are at risk of repatriation to gulags or human trafficking. LiNK helps these refugees make the 3,000 mile journey through China and Southeast Asia into South Korea, where they enjoy immediate citizenship.

Lopez: Do you talk with your children about North Korea?

Mandel: My oldest is four, so we don’t talk about it really at all, except to say that sometimes mommy helps people and that’s why we went to Los Angeles over the summer (where I received a grassroots award from LiNK) and why I’m going to South Korea next weekend.

Lopez: Why are you going? What do you hope to accomplish?

Mandel: I’m looking forward to blogging about the experience at Ricochet. I’ve had so many generous donations over the last five years, and I want to really show those who have contributed where their money went — and the lives they have changed. I’ll be touring South Korea a bit, but the majority of my time will be meeting with North Korean refugees.

Lopez: Why should more Americans think about and do more for North Koreans?

Mandel: The situation is dire and has been for decades. There are concentration camps the size of Los Angeles in operation; people are born into them and they die in them. We can see them on Google Earth; there’s no ignoring their plight. By helping refugees get out and telling their stories, we are destabilizing the regime externally, and the more refugees who get out and see the outside world as it is, the more they send word back to their families still trapped inside.

Lopez: Do you pray for North Koreans? What is your prayer, if so?

Mandel: I just hope they are able to see freedom in their lifetimes and in ours. Generations have grown up brainwashed and trapped. It will take generations more to recover. But hopefully the change starts now.

Lopez: You’ve written about so many pressing, deeply personal issues that are in the news, that are so intimate to people’s lives and so difficult, including suicide and sexual abuse. How do you do it? Do you consider it brave? Because many do, and I hope they let you know that.

Mandel: I actually feel like it gives me an unfair advantage as a writer, having so much connection to things in the news — from suicide, to addiction, to Medicaid and more. One of the folks who hate-follows me tweeted the other day, “I’m sure there will be major another news event soon that of course happened to her at some point in her short life.” I enjoy writing about my personal life; it doesn’t feel brave, but cathartic. I hear from so many individuals about how it’s helped them, and it really gives my work meaning.

Lopez: Is your podcast with your husbamd, “The Sethany Show” fun to do? Is it a challenge to get quiet time to record it? Is there something especially about marriage and family life that you hope the podcast conveys? Why should people listen? How can they?

Mandel: The podcast is available on the Ricochet network and wherever podcasts are sold – iTunes, etc. It’s fun, in part because Seth never wanted to do it and still doesn’t love it. He still thinks nobody listens to podcasts, despite me working for Ricochet, a podcast network. We feel really blessed to have a good marriage and wonderful kids and feel like both marriage and parenthood get a bad rep in our culture, and we like to counteract that as much as we can.

Lopez: Happy belated anniversary, by the way! Am I right that you and Seth met in Cambodia? How did that happen?

Mandel: Sort of! I lived in Cambodia for a year and left dating his best friend . . . and came back and married him. We had two vacations together over the course of that year, but the rest of our relationship was via Skype and Google chat. It was a really hard year being apart; to quote When Harry Met Sally, once you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

Lopez: What are the issues you wish you had more time in the day to write about?

Mandel: Since becoming a mother, I’ve really come to appreciate how right Andrew Breitbart was when he said politics is downstream of culture. I’m far less interested in the day-to-day inside-baseball politics and far more passionate about the erosion of our culture. I wish I had more time to work on issues around education, foster care, and adoption, not necessarily to write, but to actually work and better the situation.

Lopez: What motivates you to write when you also have your hands full with children?

Mandel: I still have so many things to say, but far less time to say it. I spend a lot of my days pre-writing or brainstorming, and when I have a moment during nap time or after bed, I hit the ground running.

Lopez: What is the book your heart desires to write when given the opportunity?

Mandel: I don’t feel ready yet, but one day I’d like to write a memoir about my parents and how their lives and deaths shaped me and my parenting. Becoming a mother made me see my childhood and their deaths in a very different way, and I have so much to say about how their examples — in good ways and bad — have informed every part of my thought process and identity.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.

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