Fleeing for freedom

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Fleeing for freedom


Joseph Kim, left, and Danny Lee fled North Korea to begin new lives in the United States. By Kim Sang-jin

LOS ANGELES - As a little boy, Kim Gwang-jin was left behind by his mother when she fled North Korea for China. To survive, he helped out farmers around town, begged for food and even stole.

Hunger never ceased.

“My father was an accountant who starved to death,” explained Kim in an interview in Los Angeles. “My mother and sister went over to China without me. I was an orphan for four years.”

Kim did eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps. His escape was daring: The 16 year old would cross the Tumen River in broad daylight, because, as he explained, there would be fewer border guards on duty, who shoot to kill when dealing with potential escapees.

Now a 20-year-old high school senior living in Virginia, Kim has changed his name to Joseph and his biggest worries are his SAT scores and his basketball skills.


Danny Lee looks at North Korean-style kimchi his mother bought him.

A few years later than students his age, Kim spends his days and evenings studying and preparing for college.

During summer vacation, he studied for the SATs for five hours a day in Los Angeles with a tutor provided by LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), a nongovernmental organization that helps North Korean escapees and advocates for human rights for North Koreans.

Comprised of second-generation Korean-Americans, LiNK was established in 2004 and has supported 15 escapees so far.

Life in America

“In my college application essay, I emphasized my endeavors of escaping from the North and coming to America. I also want to deal with the vast cultural differences and, ultimately, realize my dreams,” said Kim, now a permanent resident of the U.S.

Kim has not only been able to adapt to life in a foreign country, but he has seemingly persevered in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

“I studied English with just a dictionary,” said Kim. “I just memorize 50 words a day. I am only able to sleep two to three hours a day to catch up. A world without the SATs would be paradise,” he joked.

Kim’s SAT scores amount to about 1,200 right now out of 2,400. He is aiming for a score higher than 1,800 and dreams of attending a prestigious university.

To Kim, the most difficult challenge about American life has not been the language or culture, but basketball.

“We had a chance to play basketball in school,” said Kim. “I didn’t know the rules or understand what anyone was saying. I’d only seen a basketball twice in my life before coming to America. The other students made fun of me so I bought a ball and practiced on my own everyday for two hours.”


Kim and Lee look at Hoeryong, their North Korean hometown, on Google Earth. By Kim Sang-jin

The escape

Kim was born in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province - the birthplace of Kim Jong-il’s mother. The city overlooks North Korea’s border with China. Despite being more commercially active than other areas of North Korea, people there still suffer from hunger.

“I thought if I continued to live here, an early death would be a sure thing,” he explained.

After crossing the Tumen River, he said his first month in China was terrifying. As a refugee, he had even less freedom there than in the North. As is the case with all Korean refugees who flee to China, he was constantly in fear of being caught by the police. China usually repatriates North Korean refugees, sending them back to a certain death.

Even going outside proved to be a difficult task. “I knocked on random doors to beg for food. After a couple doors, I had to give up eating for that day.”

Kim’s life took a major turn when LiNK came to his rescue.

He made his way to the U.S. consulate in Beijing, where went through a battery of tests to make sure he was truly a North Korean defector. One test had Kim sing the “Kim Il Sung song.”

It was a long process - four months in total.

During his time at the consulate, Kim met a fellow escapee, Danny Lee, with whom Kim remains friends today. Lee had been separated from his mother when she was caught by Chinese police trying to enter the U.S. consulate - but Danny made it in. She later came to South Korea.

The main reason Lee sought refugee status in the U.S. was his concern about employment. “I was able to see the life in South Korea through dramas and TV shows and noted even those who went to a prestigious university were faced with difficult situations and couldn’t get jobs,” he said.

As for Kim, the main reason he chose America was because he thought he would face less discrimination there than in South Korea. Another major reason was English. “Korean society seemed to put a lot of importance on English and I thought it would be difficult to live there without being fluent,” says Kim, explaining he’d rather learn English where it is spoken as a first language.

After four months at the consulate in Beijing, the boys flew to Los Angeles, where they lived in a home with LiNK volunteers.

Lee, now a permanent resident of the U.S., lives in Utah with a foster family.

Life as a North Korean

During the interview, the boys talked at length about perceptions held by North Koreans and the prospects for unification.

Kim carefully answered a question regarding South Korea’s foreign policy.

“Most North Koreans don’t even know what the Sunshine Policy is. They do, however, cheer when cheap corn is delivered to the North when South Korea sends it,” said Kim.

To Kim, the end justifies the means.

“I think President Lee is giving up something small to reach a big result - that is, ending talks until the North gives up their nuclear weapons. I think this policy will prove to be the right choice in the long run.”

The brutal reign of Kim Jong-il has caused North Korea to fall deeper into poverty, but his grip on power is slipping, if only slightly.

“The citizens think of Kim Il Sung as a great leader due to years of brainwashing,” said Kim. “But people have a hard time trusting Kim Jong-il. I think the important thing is to form friendly relations between the peoples.”

Kim points to a poster hung at the LiNK office that reads: “Hunger does not know politics.”

The future

“I believe in the American Dream, which allows immigrants to become governors. When I was in North Korea, I only thought of making a lot of money,” Kim continued. “But it’s all changed now - I want to study. I want to know about politics, economics and later become an inspiration to other North Koreans.”

Lee’s dream includes getting a job.

He is taking the GED, the American high school equivalency test, in order to stand on his own two feet. “I want to be independent. I’m getting a lot of stress because of employment issues.”

On unification, Kim and Lee worry that the young generation of South Koreans are not prepared enough for what lies ahead. “These South Korean students [that I meet in the U.S.] are the ones who need to prepare for unification, but the level of the questions they have is just appalling,” said Kim.

Lee agrees. “I just sigh at the current situation of young [South] Koreans. They usually think that unification will only be a burden on the South and feel it is a waste of money. I think there is a dire need to educate the younger generations on the reasons why unification is necessary,” Lee said.

With recent controversy in Korea over a unification tax, the two boys say they worry about what lies ahead.

“There is no certainty of whether North Koreans will be able to enjoy the same level of living standards as our Southern counterparts,” said Lee. “I’m worried that those in power will still enjoy their positions even after we are one.

“We have to make sure that unification happens in a way that can give hope to North Koreans, too. There is a need to show the citizens that they will be able to live a better life if we are one again.”

By Kim Ki-jung [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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