Interview: From North Korea to NYC, Defector Recounts His Unlikely Journey

Joseph Kim and his new book 'Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America.' (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Joseph Kim will share his story of escape and reinvention at Asia Society San Francisco on June 16 and will join a panel on famine in North Korea at Asia Society Los Angeles on June 18.

When Joseph Kim was a 4-year-old North Korean child in 1994, a devastating famine hit that would claim more than 10 percent of his compatriots' lives. The famine set off an unlikely series of events that would ultimately lead Kim to New York City, where he’s now a dedicated college student learning the intricacies of political science, hoping to one day help his country open up.

In a new book titled Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America, Kim details how he became orphaned after his father succumbed to starvation, his mother simply disappeared, and his sister went to China in desperation, never to be heard from again. Totally alone, Kim stayed alive by stealing food and taking on odd jobs that included working deep in dangerous coal mines. Finally, aged 15 and starving, he decided he had little choice but to flee to China himself in hopes of finding his sister. In a daring daytime escape, Kim made it across the border, but that was only the beginning of his ordeal. For the following year, he would live a nomad’s life until Korean-Chinese Christians connected him with a group that got him to an American consulate and out of China.

Kim will speak about his journey at Asia Society San Francisco on June 16 and on a panel at Asia Society Los Angeles on June 18. Ahead of his talks, he sat down with Asia Blog to describe his transition out of North Korea and how he’s adjusted to American life.

Can you describe what happened when you first escaped to China?

I’d heard from my town that China has, I wouldn’t say surplus food, but enough that people don’t die of starvation. So I was thinking as soon as I crossed the border safely, I could eat and get some clothing and basic things from Chinese people. But it turned out that no one left out any rice or leftover food, which frightened me. And I was really surprised and felt betrayed because I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t share. I wasn’t asking for steak or really nice food, all I wanted was leftover rice.

I went to 10 different houses, and not only did they not share food, but there were looks like somehow they hated me. I was so confused. In retrospect, now that I’ve researched, I think there are a few reasons. If any Chinese citizens give aid, water, food — anything — to North Korean defectors, by Chinese law they are subject to pay fines like 5,000 yuan ($805), which is pretty significant. Second, I was also a teenage boy, so they thought I was dangerous. They thought that I might rob them, which actually had happened before.

Growing up in North Korea I’d heard this phrase “the sky is so dark” that you use when you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to. It was the first time I kind of understood what that phrase meant. At the moment [I realized I wouldn’t find my sister] I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know the language, didn’t know anyone there, had no food, I was in the situation where I could be caught at any second. I felt very isolated physically and mentally. I think that was very hard for me to take when I was only 15.

You were ultimately helped by Korean-Chinese Christians in the area, and I see you still wear a cross around your neck. Was this the first time you’d heard of religion? 

When I was struggling, a Chinese elderly lady told me I should go to a church for support. I asked why they would give me money or support and her answer was the least logical answer I’d ever heard in my life. She was like: “Because they’re Christians.” So that’s why I started becoming interested in Christianity, because in North Korea I never had the concept of religion or God at all.

Once I went to a church and a woman in her 30s gave me 50 yuan ($8), which was the most money I had ever gotten. I appreciated it, left her church, and went back to an abandoned house thinking the church was pretty generous. I went back thinking I could get another 50 yuan, but this time there was another person who offered me a place to stay instead of cash, which was enticing enough. But then I learned that the lady who gave me 50 yuan in my previous trip, her family wasn’t rich. In fact they were struggling. Her husband couldn’t even afford to go to the dentist because it was too expensive. So that really sparked me. Up until that point I never felt bad about taking money from the church and the Christians, but after I heard that story I was really convinced. I wanted to know what they believe and why they’re different. That kind of sacrifice and unconditional love was very alien to me.

Did you really believe in Kim Il-sung when you lived in North Korea?

Yes. It’s inevitable because in kindergarten or first grade you watch movies where American soldiers stab pregnant North Korean women with bayonets and put them in fires or gas chambers while killing people for no reason. Your anger toward Americans automatically grows. But when you’re introduced to this guy Kim Il-sung who actually saved us from those monstrous enemies. Because you’re so young, you take everything and don’t really wonder whether it’s the truth. Also, society itself systematically discourages questioning authority at all.

After being taught that America is the enemy your whole life, what was the process of shifting your mindset like?

It wasn’t necessarily America that made me change my thinking. When I went to China I ended up having a conversation, or argument, with a young Korean-Chinese man. I was always taught that South Korea had attacked the North first in the civil war. When he said it was the North that attacked, at first I was angry. But of course there was no evidence I could use to say why I believed what I was taught. Human nature is to protect your knowledge and think everything you know is right. But there were a lot of moments like that where I had to start acknowledging that everything I knew was wrong.

In terms of America I think it was easier for me because a lot of things were proven automatically. For example, in North Korea teachers taught us that we are the greatest country in the world and that there’s nothing to envy from the other side of the world. But as long as you have a rational mind, it’s going to be very hard to keep believing that after your father died of starvation, your friends died of starvation, and there are so many homeless on the street.

Then you go to China and no one really dies of starvation. In fact, everyone was like, “I’m on a diet.” And I’m like, “What the heck is a diet?!” And there were lights on, TVs were running 24 hours a day with multiple channels. It was easier for me in a sense to see why a lot of the things I’d been taught were wrong.

So by the time you got a chance to go to the U.S., was it an easy decision?

When I was first offered to go to the United States, my immediate response was no without even thinking. I was so brainwashed that my response was immediately no, even though I could be caught any time in China. It took a little while for me to make the decision to go to the U.S.

I wanted to come to America because in South Korea I didn’t know anyone versus in the U.S. I’d at least have one person that I met in China. Plus I wanted to learn English. Even if I went to South Korea, I’d pretty much start my life from square one again. Even though it used to be the same country, after 70 years of division, the cultures have changed, and being accepted in South Korea as a North Korean defector, you need a lot to catch up — educationally, ideologically, culturally, and with language as well. If I was going to start all over again, I might as well try something completely new in a different place.

After you first moved to Richmond, Virginia, with a foster family, how hard was it to adjust to American life?

There was one moment where I felt really embarrassed. I was put in American high school and of course it was very hard to make friends the first week. I brought some chocolate to class, gave it to a classmate, and asked, “Can you be my friend?” I think they were scared. (Laughs). In North Korea, you know, food is everything in a sense. In my life at least. So I thought it would be a gesture of friendship, but that didn’t work, and I was really surprised. That’s just one small example of how difficult it was.

Did classmates treat you differently because you were North Korean?

Back in 2007 not many classmates knew much difference between North and South Korea. So in high school they’d be like “OK” (Laughs), which kind of helped me. But South Korean students would know. It was somewhat frustrating because I wanted to be friends with them and learn from them, but it was very hard for me to figure out how to find commonalities between them and myself. Yes we all speak Korean, but I didn’t know any funny jokes and couldn’t understand their jokes. So in that sense I think I got along better with non-South Korean friends. South Koreans knew I was from the North. They were nice to me, but it was different.

In your book you say: “Sometimes I miss the simplicity of North Korea. In America, there are so many shades of gray between the black and white that is a North Korean life.” What did you mean by that?

I was talking about morality. In North Korea I didn’t have to worry much about whether things like stealing food were ethically or morally right. All I had to do was make sure that I survived. But when I had all this freedom and so many things I didn’t have before, all kinds of difficult questions came up because at the time I was thinking it has to be black or white.

For example, do I live the rest of my life, enjoy freedom and food and just forget about the North Korean people? Or do I want to do something about it [to help them]? But then does that mean I need to fully sacrifice my life? Does that mean I can’t enjoy freedom myself, learn things like computer programming, or go on vacation? I don’t think anyone would say I’m morally wrong for going on vacation, but those were the questions I had to sit down and think about.

I also remember I used to get angry when I saw people throw away leftover food. But as I lived in the U.S., I started becoming used to it. I see now that it’s ok to throw away a couple french fries, but it was difficult for me then. I think it was an ethical issue with me — what should I do [when I see it]? It really bothered me internally because I know wasting food is wrong.

After eight years of living in America, is there anything you still find strange?

Definitely not as much now, but before, like the concept of going out with your family in the park on Saturdays, laying down on the grass, and having some hot dogs or barbeque. Those were things I was like, “Oh. You can actually live life like that?”

Do you have many happy memories of North Korea?

Sure. That’s what I also tried to portray in the book. I truly believe that even when you’re homeless, there must be some happy moments. You can’t live a life constantly depressed or constantly saddened. I think those small bits of happiness when you’re homeless could be, for example, getting one more bowl of rice than you had yesterday. Isn’t that happiness? And of course, living with my parents until I was 12. I always knew that I was loved and cared for by them. And other memories — the first time I scored a goal in a soccer game with classmates, the first time I learned to swim in the river. I consider all those happy memories that you can’t buy with money.

What do you hope people take away from your book?

People don’t know much about North Korea. When they associate words with North Korea, it’s usually nuclear weapons, dictatorship, communism, or Kim Jong Un. One thing that’s missing is people like us living in the system.

North Korea is completely isolated politically and geographically, so in some ways it’s tempting for us to think of North Koreans as aliens from another Earth. But I want people to take away that we are all basically the same people. I want people to remember that it’s actually people living inside the system, it’s not the system that is the country. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.