The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Hope brought me to America’: A North Korean defector tells his inspiring story

Joseph Kim's story begins with the North Korean famine, which first descended on the country in 1994, when he was 4 years old, and would eventually kill as much as 10  percent of the population. By the time he was 13, he was homeless and alone, a starving orphan at a time and place when starving orphans tended not to make it. "Hunger is humiliation, hunger is hopelessness," he said in a moving TED Talk about how he ended up leaving his homeland and about the things he found on the outside, which turned out to be far more valuable than any piece of bread.

Soon after Joseph watched his father succumb to starvation, in 2003, his mother and older sister decided to sneak across the border into China. A number of North Koreans fled to China for work and food during the famine; some came back, some stayed in China and a number of them ended up in slavery-like conditions or dead. All Joseph knows is that he never saw them again. "I didn't even give her a hug when she left," he recalls of his mother's departure. "It was the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life. But I didn't know it was going to be a long goodbye."

Like many starving young orphans, Joseph devoted what little energy he had to scouring for food. "My daily life became very hard but very simple," he says. "My goal was to find a dusty piece of bread in the trash." For a while, he worked 16-hour days in a coal mine. "When I could not fall asleep, from bitter cold or hunger pains, I hoped that the next morning my sister would come back to wake me up with my favorite food. That hope kept me alive." In the mornings, he would will himself to make the decision to continue living.

Joseph did not arrive at the decision to flee to China easily. He knew that North Korean border guards would sometimes shoot escapees on sight and that Chinese border guards would ship him home, where he would likely be sentenced to a labor camp or worse for attempting to flee. And he could have faced other awful fates in China, where North Koreans are often forced into labor or prostitution. But, fearing he would starve if he stayed in his home country, he sneaked into China at age 16.

Although life in China was harder even than it had been in North Korea, Joseph eventually found one of the "underground railroads" that aid refugees like him. They provided shelter, his first regular meals in more than a decade and, most importantly, help escaping to the United States.

North Korean refugees often struggle in the outside world, for which they're ill-prepared by years of propaganda and intense resource competition. Joseph, though far from ready for American high school after spending most of his school years scrounging for food, found shelter with his foster family. He tells a story about dinner one night, about trying to reconcile his fortune in the United States with his much harder past and that of his family. His English is not perfect so I have cleaned it up in some places to help convey his meaning. His moving account conveys the lessons he learned about hope and love as a North Korean refugee, but that he says can, and should, apply to anyone:

One day I came home and my foster mother had made chicken wings for dinner. During the dinner, I wanted to have one more wing but I realized that there were not enough for everyone, so I decide against it. When I looked down at my plate, I saw the last chicken wing, that my father had given me his. I was so happy. I looked at him. Sitting next to me, he just looked back at me very warmly but said no words.
Then I remember my biological father. My foster father's small act of love reminded me of my father who had loved to share his food with me, even if he was starving. I felt so suffocated that I had so much food in America, yet my father had died of starvation. My only wish that night was to cook a meal for him. I thought of what else I could do to honor him and my answer was to promise to myself that I would study hard and best education in America to honor his sacrifice. I took school seriously and, for the first time in my life, received an academic award and made dean's list.
That chicken wing changed my life. [Laughter] Hope is personal. Hope is something that no one can give to you. You have to choose to believe in hope, you have to make it yourself. In North Korea, I made it myself. Hope brought me to America. But in America, I didn't know what to do because I had this overwhelming freedom. My foster father, at that dinner, gave me direction and he motivated me. He gave me a purpose to life in America.
I did not come here by myself. I had hope, but hope by itself is not enough, many people helped me along the way to get here. North Koreans are fighting hard to survive. They have to force themselves to survive, fight hard to survive, but they cannot make it without help.
This is my message to you. Have hope for yourself but also help each other. Life can be hard for everyone, wherever you live. My foster father didn't intend to change my life. In the same way, you may also change someone's life with even the smallest act of love. A piece of bread can satisfy your hunger, and having hope will bring you bread to keep alive. But I confidently believe that your act of love and caring can save another Joseph's life and save thousands of other Josephs who still have hope to survive.