The Common Good
September/October 2009

Joseph Kim Interview Transcript

by Jeannie Choi | September/October 2009

Jeannie Choi: Well first Joseph I wanted to ask you about your life and your memories of growing up in North Korea, because many of us don't know what it's like, obviously.

Jeannie Choi: Well first Joseph I wanted to ask you about your life and your memories of growing up in North Korea, because many of us don't know what it's like, obviously. So will you share with me your best and worst memories of growing up in North Korea?

Joseph Kim: Sure. I guess my worst memory was that, how I lost my family because of starvation. I think my best memory was that, like holidays, because on holidays I had enough food and so I wasn't hungry at all.

And who would give you food on a holiday?


My parents.

And what kind of food would they give you?

Rice and side dishes and Korean traditional bread.

Great. But over-all, in general, life in North Korea was very hard, is that right?

Yes.

Did you go to school in North Korea or were you working?

I went to elementary school [for] about four years, and after four years I basically worked.

And where did you work?

It depends. It wasn't like this job that I could work every day, so some day I could work as [a] farmer, some day I could work as [a] coal miner.

Were most of the kids your age in North Korea also living the same kind of life as you, working and begging for food?

I can say that in my [inaudible], maybe twenty or thirty percent of kids lost their family, so their life is like very similar to me.

You were able to escape from North Korea to China. Share with me the story of your escape from North Korea.

It was very dangerous and I was scared. But I crossed the river. It was winter time so I walked on the ice, so that's how I crossed the river, but it was really difficult because there were many soldiers, like river guards. Their job was to catch persons who are trying to escape across the river. So it was very hard, but I can say it was good timing and I got good luck.

Definitely. You mentioned that your father passed away from starvation and your mother and sister are missing, you don't know what has happened to them. Have you been trying to find them at all?

Yes I was, but as you know China's big and without [an] address, you cannot -- it's very hard to find [people]. But I'm still hoping that one day I can meet them and I'm still trying.

What did you do when you arrived in China? What was it like, and how did you survive in China?

Again, it was really difficult because it was very dangerous. The Chinese government didn’t accept me as a refugee so if I [get] caught by Chinese police, I would be sent back to North Korea and I would die either, or I would go to jail, so that was the biggest reason, and the hardest thing. I didn’t have any family friends so I had a very hard time staying in China.

But luckily I met some Korean and Chinese people who -- persons who helped me, fed me and let me sleep in their house. Until I found a person who helped me, I spent about one month by myself and I was wandering and staying in empty houses, and sometimes I slept on the mountains. So it was very hard and after I found the person who helped me I stayed at their house every day.

A lot of people say that North Koreans don’t want to leave North Korea, or at least the North Korean government tells us that. Is that true? And if so, why did you want to escape north Korea?

The reason was, I was hungry. And I had no where, no place, and it was very impossible to feed myself and survive without money and without parents. So I decided to leave the country because I heard that if I go to China, at least I can feed myself. So that’s why I left.

And how old were you when you escaped?

15.

How did you become associated with LiNK, and how were you able to come to America?

I met LiNK at China, and I stayed in a LiNK shelter for about two months, so that’s how I associated with LiNK. And LiNK members helped me to get into the American embassy, so that was how I came to the United States.

Joseph, what message would you want to send to your friends who are still in North Korea?

I would say that, [I am] sorry that they still live in North Korea and I would like to say that maybe they think that they cannot live without North Korea, but that is not true. Basically, North Korea is the worst place. So I would like to say, as long as possible, escape the country, especially those whose situation is like mine. Definitely it’s better to escape. Another one I would say is that, just survive however, [it] doesn’t matter what method they use. Just survive until North Korea becomes a free country.

And what about Americans? What message do you want to tell Americans, and what do you want Americans to know about North Korea?

I’d like to tell American people that Americans are very blessed and are very lucky, and I want them to know that North Koreans are starving and dying because of a piece of bread. They are dying. I want us to know that food is important and very precious for North Koreans. I’d like them to know that North Koreans are dying because of food.

You obviously work at LiNK now, is that right? And you are helping link bring liberty to North Korea and to North Koreans. And I wanted to ask you, because the situation in North Korea often seems so hopeless, where do you see hope with regards to the human rights violations happening in North Korea. Where is hope in North Korea?

I think the hope is that North Korean refugees who are resettled in the United States, they are the hope because we are in the United States and that is very miracle, and if we are spread out about North Korea and if they work for them it is very powerful. And I believe that it will be inspiring to American people so that they will work for North Korea. So I would say that North Korean refugees are part of the hope for North Koreans, because we are the only people who can talk about it and tell you about the situation in North Korea.

Definitely. Well, Joseph thank you for your time and I appreciate you sharing your story with us.

You’re welcome. Thank you for your time.

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