×

Fill out the brief form below for access to the free report.

Democracy Talks: Joseph Kim, North Korean Refugee

Bush Institute Expert-in-Residence Joseph Kim, a North Korean refugee, discusses his experience living under an authoritarian regime, the denial of human rights in his native country, and why he believes human rights matter in all nations.

Article by William McKenzie, Lindsay Lloyd, and Christopher Walsh May 5, 2020 //   15 minute read

Joseph Kim survived for three years on the streets of North Korea, where he was forced to live after losing his father, mother, and sister. As a 15-year old, he eventually escaped to China, where missionaries and representatives from Liberty in North Korea (LINK) helped him make it to the United States. After graduating high school in Virginia, he later earned a degree from Bard College and became a U.S. citizen.  

Now a Bush Institute expert-in-residence, Kim spoke with colleagues Lindsay Lloyd, Chris Walsh, and Bill McKenzie about his experience living under an authoritarian regime, the denial of human rights in his native country, and why he believes human rights matter in all nations.

What was your life like living on the streets of North Korea?

North Korea is one of the darkest places on Earth in terms of the regime’s attitude toward human rights and how they treat citizens. It is as close to an absence of freedom as we define it in the western world. The biggest victim of authoritarian regimes like this are the citizens, not those in high authority.

North Korea is one of the darkest places on Earth in terms of the regime’s attitude toward human rights and how they treat citizens. It is as close to an absence of freedom as we define it in the western world. The biggest victim of authoritarian regimes like this are the citizens, not those in high authority.

My family was just one of many who suffered at the hands of this dictatorship. My father starved to death when I was 12-years old. The same year I lost my sister and my mom for a similar reason. That left me alone among homeless children on the streets at the age of 12.

The first challenge you must learn how to give up is your pride and sense of dignity. Most grown-up homeless people don’t survive because they have a stronger sense of dignity and a realization of who they are as a human being. It is easier for younger people to give that up because they have they less sense of their dignity. Your pride has to die in order for you to survive.

The next formidable challenge was the other homeless children. They can be quite mean. There is no authority figure to police their behavior. In a way, you cannot blame them. They live their life with the bitter knowledge that they were neglected and unwanted by their parents.

I didn’t become homeless overnight. My mom had seven siblings. Before I went on the streets, I went to their houses for help. I found I was unwelcome. Everyone was fighting against famine.

Children who end up on the street live with anxiety about their future but also with so much bitterness and anger. They have been constantly rejected. The world reminds them they are worthless. The only way to become respected by them is to show your resistance to them until they realize they can’t break you. It is difficult not to become a monster.

That was my childhood from age 12 to 15.

A few years ago, I was in a creative writing class and my professor asked us to write a short story about happy memories from our childhoods. It took me a long time to think of a happy memory. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any, but I was used to telling my story only in terms of sad stories. I realized that is not the best way to go about it. I don’t want my past to define who I am today. And both sad and happy memories are equal parts of who I am.

In 2013, I had the opportunity to visit South Africa. I saw a message: “They call it Africa, but we call it home.” That message spoke to me. North Korea is one of the darkest places on Earth but it also is a home for so many people, including refugees like myself. I would like to go back home someday.

Were most of the homeless children there because of famine, family abandonment, or political reasons?

Most were there because of famine. I was fortunate to become homeless at age 12, and I mean that, because many of them became homeless at age five. Parents were not able to take care of their children, and the parents may have thought their children had a better chance surviving on the streets.

Imagine that you are five and your mom says she will be back in five minutes with your favorite food and those five minutes become hours and then days. And then she never comes back. Imagine growing up with that memory and not becoming bitter. That is their greatest adversity to overcome, on top of the shortage of food.

You are an optimistic person and you are not letting your past define you. But how did you escape that bitterness?

My optimism and confidence comes from knowing I was dearly loved by my sister, my father, and my mom in the best way she could. She didn’t have that much opportunity. The knowledge that I am worthy and special to my parents is a big reason I am where I am today.

But I also am optimistic because of my experience. No one expects to become homeless, but one of the benefits is that you have so much time. You cry, you express your resentment, you ask questions like, why did my parents bring me into this world if they couldn’t take care of me?

----dynamic----

But at the end of the day, you realize crying doesn’t do much. You look at life and laugh about it, or cry about it. Based upon my experience, people are not going to cry with you, especially other homeless children. You try to be as optimistic as you can.

You mentioned the concept of human dignity. What does that mean — and feel like — to you?

You hear the phrase, “I must earn your respect.” But you don’t say you must earn your dignity. Dignity doesn’t come with merits. Dignity is not something you do and receive in return. It doesn’t take a philosopher to understand the concept. Dignity is innate in human nature. We would like to be treated as dignified human beings. Whether you are educated or uneducated, you feel sad when people don’t treat you with respect. And you feel great when other people recognize you as a worthy member of a community.

The German philosopher Hegel talked about dignity in terms of recognition. We would like to be recognized as good human beings and that has been a constant struggle in human history.

Does North Korea respect human dignity?

No. By definition, human dignity means treating people equally and fairly. By that standard, no.

What is it like to be in a place without freedom? And are North Koreans even aware of what they are lacking?

Your question is like asking, can you understand freedom if you have not experienced freedom? I have thought about it a lot, but don’t have a great answer. 

I would say that even if people don’t understand or see freedom in a philosophical or academic sense, they notice when they have a lack of freedom in their lives.

To me, freedom meant being able to go outside when I was living in China in an apartment complex after escaping from North Korea. I remember looking out the window and seeing children of my age freely walking around. I was envious but couldn’t go out whenever I liked. The police were searching for and capturing North Korean refugees and sending them back to North Korea. I would increase my chances of being captured the more I went out, so I only went out in the morning. To me, being able to go out anytime I wanted to would have been freedom.

Freedom is like air. You can’t touch it or see it. We don’t think about it or appreciate it when we have it. But we notice it when we don’t have it, just like we notice when we don’t have oxygen. You realize you don’t have options.

Freedom is like air. You can’t touch it or see it. We don’t think about it or appreciate it when we have it. But we notice it when we don’t have it, just like we notice when we don’t have oxygen. You realize you don’t have options.

Do North Koreans understand they are living in circumstances that are not free and that the world is different from what their government is telling them?

It is a combination of things. More North Koreans are aware they are living in a precarious society compared to their rich neighbors in South Korea. But that knowledge alone is not enough for individuals to act or start a revolution. When I was hungry, I didn’t have much opportunity to wonder why my society was suffering economically or lacked freedom. I had to find food.

When you look at the French Revolution, collective action was the accumulation of frustration over time. Over time, as a society realizes this reality, it is in our nature to change that reality. In our case, the key source of our poverty was our lack of freedom and mismanagement of the government.

 What do human rights matter to you?

Let me answer why they matter. And not just to me, but for everyone. As President Bush says, how others live matters. How they live matters both practically and morally.

Morally, whether a North Korean homeless child has eaten enough today or not matters because we are all human. And COVID-19 is a perfect practical example of this reality. COVID-19 broke out in China, but it now affects the rest of the world.

As much as I recognize the dark side of human nature, I see the opportunity for people to act compassionately towards each other when given the chance. That ability to care for each other is the most important element of human flourishing and for the advancement of humanity. When my human rights are protected, it gives me the opportunity to protect and secure the rights of others I care for.

What do you say to Americans about why the United States should allow in refugees from North Korea?

Telling Americans what to do is one thing, inspiring them to do it is another. Inspiring them to take an action is a greater task, and I don’t have an answer. You can go on the internet and quickly learn about human rights violations – and not only in North Korea. The lack of action is not because of a lack of knowledge. In fact, one of the greatest questions of our time is how do you have knowledge and not act?

You can go on the internet and quickly learn about human rights violations – and not only in North Korea. The lack of action is not because of a lack of knowledge. In fact, one of the greatest questions of our time is how do you have knowledge and not act?

I am not saying this to blame people. I am guilty of not doing enough myself. I don’t wake up the first thing in the morning and think about this, and I experienced those human rights violations.

What motivated you to become an American citizen a couple of years ago? You had a green card so you could have remained here indefinitely without becoming a citizen.

First, I needed citizenship to travel. But second, I had great admiration for this country. I was inspired by the stories of the American Revolution. America’s unique from the start of its foundation. And I never thought of not becoming a citizen.

You traveled to South Korea after you had lived in the United States. What did that experience of being in a Korean culture say to you, if anything, about the possibilities for North Korea?

It absolutely said something to me, but it has not just said something to me. Many experts see we share the same history and culture. The only difference is that political institutions decide what North Korea’s citizens ought to do.

South Korea has its own obstacles to overcome, but its citizens live in a free society and liberal democracy — one of the world’s most thriving. South Korea’s economic prosperity and the success of its democracy speaks to the fact that the only difference in these two Korean nations is that one country’s citizens live in a free society. That is clear evidence that North Koreans can also enjoy prosperity and maximize their potential by becoming a free society.

South Korea’s economic prosperity and the success of its democracy speaks to the fact that the only difference in these two Korean nations is that one country’s citizens live in a free society.