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

Q&A with North Korean escapee Debby Kim

October 24, 2019 9 minute Read
By Jeff Kim
Debby Kim, a two-time North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient, is a sophomore biochemistry major at Wheaton College in Illinois and an aspiring doctor. She escaped North Korea when she was 13 years old.

Jeff Kim: How have you been, Debby?

Debby Kim: I’ve been well. I get to live on campus this year, which is the best thing. I also joined a book club this April, and it’s very good for my self-improvement.

JK: What was it like meeting President Bush in person?

DK: The meeting with President Bush was very surprising. He was interested in each one of our stories and listened carefully. I was glad to see him caring for North Korea students even after his time in office ended.

JK: How has the scholarship helped you in the past year and what does it mean to you to be a scholarship recipient?

DK: This was my second time receiving the North Korea Freedom Scholarship from the George W. Bush Institute. It's been so helpful, especially this year. I received more [funding this year] than last year, which allowed me to live on campus. It paid for my housing, dorm fees, and tuition. It was very helpful. I mean, my family can't afford anything close to the amount [it costs to go to school]. I think receiving a scholarship means I am trusted because they are listening to my stories, trusting my academic performance, and trusting that I will do well in life and school. Also, [the scholarship] means hope, opportunity, and way to continue my education. And I'm very happy to finally live on campus.

JK: Why is education important to you, and why do you think people need education?

DK: I think education is power. You need [knowledge], you need to learn. If you don't [have knowledge], then you can't live in this world successfully. When you don't [have knowledge], it's easier to be ruled by a person.

JK: It might be a ways off, but do you have any plans after graduation?

DK: I have a little more than two years left in undergrad. After that I might take a gap year and then probably go to med school.

JK: Why is it important for countries like the United States and others to accept refugees?

DK: I think it’s important to accept refugees because those people need a place to go and a place to live. Providing them a place is creating peace and a better world for people. It’s also important because [refugees] can cultivate their dreams in their new land, and [one day] they can give back what they received.

JK: What does freedom mean to you, and why is freedom important?

DK: Trying to define freedom is so hard. For me, true freedom is like a value or a treasure because freedom is not free. It's not easy to get, and it isn’t granted to everybody. Some people must pay for it, and you could easily lose freedom any time. So, you must protect it like a treasure. You must protect it because you can lose it, and it's very important to [everyone]. Also, you need to know how to use [freedom].

JK: What do you mean by knowing how to use freedom?

DK: I came to America, and I had so much freedom. I could wear whatever I want, say whatever I want, and I had so much time. You have to work, study, and play, but you can't just spend money every day. Then you'll be homeless. You're free to do anything you want.

JK: What are some things, a routine or activity, that you do regularly now but you never could’ve imagined doing before?

DK: Reading books, working out at the campus fitness center, and going to church. And having a life at this college campus, these things are the things that I could never imagine doing when I was living in my homeland. I could read, but my primary [priority] was survival, so there was not much time to read or explore knowledge. And, there weren’t many books from outside resources. When I read books like The Alchemist, I’m really thankful and grateful that I’m able to read [freely]. I imagine if I was still in North Korea then I probably would not be able to read books like this.

JK: What is your view of [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong-un when he first came into power versus now?

DK: It's very interesting because when he became the leader for the first time, I was still in my hometown. I was 12 years old. I didn't know much then, and it was one year before the time that I left my country. I guess my first impression was just normal, like everybody else’s in North Korea. He's our new leader and we should follow his commands, that was what I thought. Now obviously I'm in a whole different situation, a different country, and have different beliefs. I can see it's very different now – my first impression in the past versus what I now know. I think everybody has their own way to rule a country. Maybe his father wanted to focus on other things rather than military power. For Kim Jong-un, I remember he was developing nuclear weapons when he first came into [power]. I could see he really focused on the weapons and the military more. I guess I could say he’s aggressive, but I also think that's what he wants to focus on in his reign.

JK: What are your thoughts on the human rights abuses that are going on in North Korea?

DK: It's kind of hard for me to answer this question because it's already been five years since I left North Korea. I don't know 100 percent, but as long as North Korea is not open, the human rights are oppressed. People have no voice and no opinion. People are stuck there with no ability to reach out to the outside world.

JK: What do you think we can do to stop the human rights abuses occurring in North Korea?

DK: You could do political stuff like summits, talks, or sanctions. But really the best thing is to help the North Korean defectors in China to find their own home. I think that's the best solution.

JK: What are some things you remember about North Korea, any good memories?

DK: I have some good memories. I had friends in my middle school, we were very close. I remember during summers we would climb up to the mountain in front of our village and enjoy the season. We would bring lunch there. It was just a fun time. We were young, about 10 or 11, and had no worries about life, even though our families were poor. But [life] was simple and very plain. 

JK: What can Americans do to help?

DK: Americans can help us by keeping the law that North Koreans should be accepted as refugees in the United States. The order former President Bush made [The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004] should be kept. That way Americans can help defectors find a place and start their new lives. Also, like the scholarship committee, they can help fund the students who are trying to learn so they can be successful and become impactful people. [Our stories] can prove that [freedom] is better.

JK: Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

DK: I want to say; their care gives us hope. It inspires me. I also hope that me sharing my stories and being part of this society inspires them.