I Am a North Korean Refugee. The Plight of Refugees Matters to Everyone.

An Essay by Joseph Kim, Assistant in the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute

Protecting refugees carries a monetary cost — but ignoring them costs a much greater price.

Pyongyang, North Korea in 2013. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Should I wake up 30 minutes early to eat breakfast? If so, what should I eat?

Some of you might have asked these questions at least once, if not this very morning. It might especially resonate with you if you are a recent college graduate like me. I still have a hard time waking up in the morning and am awfully successful at skipping meals once I do get up. 

Living on the streets of North Korea

Not every day, but I am often reminded of the fact that choosing between eating and not eating is a privilege. In many parts of this world, people live in fear of dying from hunger. I come from North Korea. I saw people die of starvation, including my own father when I was 12 years old.

The 1990s famine in North Korea took millions of lives, my father’s being one of them. My older sister was sold to a man in China. I lost my mom to a North Korean prison. Then, it was just me, all by myself living on the streets. 

When I could not fall asleep from the bitter cold and hunger pains, I hoped that my sister would find me the next morning and wake me up with my favorite food. That hope kept me alive. When I approached people in the food courts in the city markets, they would cover their nose and swat me away as though I were a fly.

The 1990s famine in North Korea took millions of lives, my father’s being one of them. My older sister was sold to a man in China. I lost my mom to a North Korean prison. Then, it was just me, all by myself living on the streets.

They called me homeless, orphan, and beggar. Some even called me human trash. Those words hurt me because I was also someone else’s precious son and brother. Before I had a chance to decide who I was on my own terms, my identity was defined by others.  

During this time, my dream used to be having a day where I could have three meals a day. I often wondered when I could eat; not whether I should eat. My parents and sister weren’t the most educated, but they did not fail to let me know how much they loved me. That simple knowledge of being loved kept me going.

Now, I am a former North Korean refugee in the U.S. and am the lucky one. Millions of refugees still suffer from constant threats to their lives, loss of human dignity, and severe shortages of food. 

During this time, my dream used to be having a day where I could have three meals a day. I often wondered when I could eat; not whether I should eat.

Why we should care about refugees

Protecting refugees in these situations is costly. But failing to save them is even more expensive. When international politics leaves them unattended or neglected, we lose part of our humanity and civilization takes a step backward.

I am talking about reality, not a theory. The fact that we are sharing a world where a video clip of two Nigerian men were being auctioned for $400 in a slavery market in the 21st century is a humiliation to humanity. 

The refugee struggle is not only a crisis in Africa or the Middle East. North Korean refugees also face various degrees of harsh realities. They have been and are being targeted by illegal human trafficking groups. They are vulnerable to being arrested in China and then forcibly repatriated back to North Korea. Once back there, they face torture, rape, forced labor, forced abortion, and even public execution.

Unimaginably, Chinese police are still hunting down North Korean defectors and sending them back to the Kim regime. China treats the defectors as economic migrants rather than refugees who deserve proper protection.

Even for me, it’s impossible not to flinch when I hear or read testimonials of North Korean refugees. The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (COI) reveals how an imprisoned-woman’s baby was “thrown in the feeding bowl for the (prison guard’s) dog,” according to  a former North Korean prison guard’s testimony.

We cannot turn a blind eye to those who are destroying our very own humanity. And let me state a fact: being a refugee is not a crime.  

A refugee is someone who is forced to flee his or her country to escape a well-founded fear for their safety. The 1951 Geneva Convention provides a thorough, comprehensive description of a refugee. Moreover, international law obligates nations to help refugees.

[L]et me state a fact: being a refugee is not a crime. A refugee is someone who is forced to flee his or her country to escape a well-founded fear for their safety. The 1951 Geneva Convention provides a thorough, comprehensive description of a refugee.

Despite the severe and inhumane treatment they often face, the refugee crisis around the world persists. The UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, claims there are more refugees today than at the end of World War II.  According to the UNHCR's annual Global Trend report, the refugee population alone increased from 21.3 million to 25.4 million from 2015 to 2017. By the end of 2015, an estimated 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, or human rights violations. These numbers encompass refugees and those seeking refugee status, but also stateless people and individuals who have been displaced within their own country. The UNHCR anticipates this larger number will increase to 71.4 million by the end of this year.

The number of refugees admitted into the United States, however, has been in sharp decline. From January 2016-January 2017, 96,874 refugees were admitted. From January 2017-January 2018, the United States has accepted only 33,368 refugees.

Unfortunately, no comprehensive mechanism has been implemented to address the worldwide crisis. We each have the power to change this situation by speaking out and pressing our elected leaders to compassionately address this worldwide refugee crisis. 

Don’t get me wrong: America must make sure that refugees are not simply being dumped on our borders. At the same time, we should remain a beacon for people seeking freedom.

Fortunately, we have organizations that seek to save refugees. For example, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a nonprofit organization started by college students,  has rescued 1,000 North Korean refugees. We can all make a difference by joining organizations like LiNK.

Don’t get me wrong: America must make sure that refugees are not simply being dumped on our borders. At the same time, we should remain a beacon for people seeking freedom.

Moral and practical reasons

By now you might be asking, why should we help people who live far away when we have our own poverty and socio-economic disparity at home? Unfortunately, there is no other way around this, but all lives are not only precious, their well-being affects our own well-being. As President Bush says, “how others live matters.” 

A Honduran migrant taking part in a caravan heading toward the U.S., pushes a stroller on his way from San Pedro Tapanatepec to Santiago Niltepec, Oaxaca state, Mexico, on October 29, 2018. (Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images)

That is true for both moral and practical reasons. Living up to our moral responsibilities and principles is how we sustain and preserve our humanity. And improving the quality of other people’s lives, including those of refugees, helps our own lives.

In our interconnected world, our own economic growth depends upon one another’s growth. Whether a child from the Middle East, East Asia, Africa, or some other region has eaten enough or received a decent education affects the quality of our own lives and those of our children. 

True, the hundreds of notifications we receive about terrifying, sad stories about refugees can overwhelm our hearts and numb our ability to act compassionately. But we must find a way to care for another.

True, the hundreds of notifications we receive about terrifying, sad stories about refugees can overwhelm our hearts and numb our ability to act compassionately. But we must find a way to care for them.

I would like to conclude with this famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, which is one of my favorites. I do so because “First They Came...” captures the moral and practical reasons of caring about the plight of those who must flee their own country for refuge in another. May its words call us all to act compassionately.

First, they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

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