Joseph Kim, one of the first North Korean refugees we helped reach freedom, recently took part in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Read the best bits of the Q&A below or click here to read it in its entirety.
Q: Does the average North Korean really believe all the propaganda put out by their government? I hear about them being told that the Kim family are divine, that America controls most of the world outside of Korea, and other difficult to believe things. Do most average North Koreans really believe all this?
A: Well, it’s hard to say. Yes and no. Because if you’re talking about nowadays North Koreans, it’s a little bit hard for me to say that a majority of North Koreans believe propaganda. But I do think that older generations definitely believe government propaganda, because in the 1970s, economically the North Koreans were better off than South Korea, but after the 1990s famine, things have proven that it is not the best country in the world as the government or state claim, because how can you accept the propaganda when your best friend dies of starvation? So I think nowadays more and more people are critical of government propaganda, but I can’t say what all North Koreans do now.
Q: What were you most surprised to learn about the world once you left North Korea? Also, what are some of the biggest cultural differences you’ve encountered, and what do you miss about North Korea?
A: I mean, I didn’t really know much about the outside world until I got to China. The biggest surprise was probably when I was watching TV in China, with the commercials or advertisements for medicine to help you lose weight – that was really something I never expected to see.
I think that was the biggest cultural shock. Because we were in a completely isolated country, I was not able to access information, even just going to China was culturally shocking. Coming to America, probably the biggest shocking moment was how everyone was living different lives. I guess one thing would be, for example, going to public parks with family, refreshments and barbecues, laying on the ground – I think that was something I never really imagined. I never had that in North Korea. We never had those kind of things.
I definitely miss some things. I do miss my friends, and also my hometown, my hometown has so many memories. It’s a place that I learned how to swim in the river there, there were mountains we climbed for fun, and one thing I do really miss is the pear tree from my backyard. Even if I go back to North Korea, which is not going to happen, I won’t be able to say “Oh, this is my home” because most of my family is no longer there. So seeing the pear tree I planted would give me some memories.
Q: Do you think we’ll see North Korea liberated in our lifetime?
A: I hope so. And I have some hope, because as I mentioned earlier in the conversation, I think more and more North Koreans become more and more critical about the regime. And the activities, people tend to become more independent. Before they did what the government asked them to do. So I hope the North Koreans become more aware of the wrongness of the government. And also, another reason why I feel like I have some hope is North Korea government is not stupid enough that they will step down on black market, but the black market is really the engine that helps eye-open North Korean people. So at some point, the government will have to compromise with the North Korean people, or come up with something. There will be pressure from the ground level, from the people. So I don’t know how they will respond to it. I hope more and more people will become aware of the situation, and find some leverage to pressure the government.
Q: Are you ever worried about repercussions for going public about escaping North Korea?
A: Definitely. I mean, I can’t say no, because I know that North Korean government is crazy enough to do anything that rational people would not do. At this point, in the US, one thing I could do for my people is to take my story public
Q: How much of what goes on in North Korea is kept secret?
A: A lot. I mean, especially in the West media. So much political conflicts and issues. Just about the leader. But I think what we are really missing is that because of heavy subjects, we tend to forget that there are people like myself who have hopes and dreams for a better life. And people who want to be happy. But because of all those heavy subjects, I think we sometimes don’t get to see the average North Korean, and you can’t really connect or relate to them because of heavy subjects.
Q: Did you ever have any situations where it could be life or death?
A: So many times. Just becoming homeless on the street at a young age, if i didn’t learn how to beg, I could have died of starvation. I also used to work in a coal mine when I was teenager, so yes, there were times that I was risking my life.
Q: What aspects of North Korean culture do you feel most proud of? Are there any cultural aspects you find yourself missing now you are in the USA?
Similarly, if people in North Korea were able to freely share their culture and expression with the rest of the world, what do you think would be the country’s biggest cultural export?
A: That’s a bit of a tough question. But i think one thing that i kind of miss is that back in North Korea, before the economic collapse, there was much more communal sharing. And I feel like everyone was really sharing with each other. I think North Koreans used to be more communal and family-oriented, celebrating the holidays together.
I mean, again, I am going to speak from my experience, but I don’t think freedom of expression or freedom of religion – for me, when I lived in North Korea, all I worried about was getting food. So I don’t know what North Koreans would say, but I can say that having been so isolated for so many years, even though nowadays there is much more foreign media smuggled through underground organizations, I feel that North Koreans could take a bit of time to figure out what freedom really means. For example, when I was in China, I was offered to come to US, and I said “no” because I was told that in North Korea, the US is our enemy state and we have to destroy it someday. So I said “no” first, and then the person who offered me told me to discuss this opportunity, so I went back to my underground church pastor, and I asked him “Why should I go to America?” and he said because i could continue my education, and the second thing is that I could have freedom. And that didn’t catch my ear, because I knew what freedom was, but until he was elaborating what freedom WAS – I could go outside anytime I wanted to go out (because when I was in China, I was hiding, and then I stayed in an apartment for so long, so going outside was something luxurious). That was a real turning point for me.
Q: There is one aspect I’ve been wondering about lately, and that is how the North Korean media and North Korean people view South Korea as a whole. Do they take a militaristic, angry stance very often, and talk about taking over the country by force? Or do they feel as many of the older South Koreans do – that the two countries are still one people, and that someday peaceful re-unification should happen?
A: Well, I guess one thing I can say is that it is true that more and more young South Korean youth are becoming less and less motivated about the country to be united. I think this is what happens, in South Korea, even young people know that the real exchange is something we must achieve in the future, they know it’s the right thing to do, but I don’t think they are as motivated. So I think that’s the biggest part. And also South Korean older generations, they were really dealing with working on their own way to achieve their success, whatever it was. I don’t think they had enough time to educate and emphasize the unification for their children. And I also think South Korea, because it’s such a competitive society there, everyone has to work really hard. They don’t have as much time to think about ideas like unification. I think it’s something that is hard to think about. But we just don’t know how reunification is going to happen.
I think in general, North Koreans don’t see South Korean people as enemies. Because the schools taught that we should love and respect South Korean people. They are just in a bad place with their government. Their government is American, so they definitely have hatred toward the politicians, but not necessarily towards the average South Korean. We realize they are our brothers and sisters.
Q: How much of what we read in the western news about north korea is not true or is propaganda, would you estimate?
A: I mean, in terms of what’s going on in the government, we don’t know because we don’t have access to information as far as I know. I think it’s just kind of interesting that Western media speculates stories based on mostly on assumptions. We really don’t know how much is going on in North Korea from a political perspective. We all know it is a terrible place for common North Korean people.
Q: What kept you going? Like what gave you hope during all of this?
A: My only hope was to see my sister, and I guess what really kept me going was that I had believed that my sister would come back and find me one day. And that was really the hope that kept me going.
Q: Studying International Relations means you probably want to make a big difference to the world, what would you do to prevent others growing up in cruel conditions you were subjected to?
A: Well, as you probably would know, studying for undergraduate, it can only give you some tools. But I don’t think I have the solution to make a better place for North Korea overnight. But what i believe is that education will help me to be empowered and overcome those issues one day. But as of now, I don’t see much hope, but one thing I can do is help make sure that we are prepared for ex-North Korea someday, with education.
Q: How did you manage to connect with LiNK, when arriving in China? At what point did you start feeling safe again? What do you consider your home now?
A: Well, I was able to be connected with LiNK through South Korean missionaries. And where do I consider to be home? Now I consider Richmond to be my home in the U.S. because that’s where I settled down first in the States. It was probably about 4 months while I was waiting in American Consulate. Because when I was in American Consulate in China, there were armed security agents, and I felt very protected because I knew they would protect us.
Q: In North Korea, did you believe the whole world was like life in North Korea? Also, what would happen if someone said something about Kim Jong Un in front of a large crowd?
A: At an early age, yes, because I remember growing up, seeing documentaries or clips from so many documentaries where you had people who were poorly dressed, struggling with finding food and drinkable water. But I think the concept, the images were fading away slowly, because knowing that China – even though it was really a small village my town, they always had light, versus we didn’t. So I think I wouldn’t say that i started doubting about it, but I started recognizing things that were from China. I definitely knew that China was better off than North Korea.
Those kind of ideas are not even imaginable.
So I never really heard an actual story that actual happened like that, but I can only imagine that they would be either public execution or put in prison camps.
Q: How long were in China before you resettled in the United States? How was the transition and 1st year of being in the U.S. like, and the cultural differences during that time? And thank you again for doing this AMA! It’s really insightful.
A: Exactly one year.
I mean, definitely the language and cultures were the biggest obstacles, but what really struck me was not knowing what to do with my life. That was hardest. Because in North Korea, my daily dream was to find food and have enough food. But then in some sense, the food was love, the food was entire dream for me. But coming to America, I think the food was provided, so in that sense, my dream was already achieved. So I didn’t really know what to look for afterwards. And a lot of people told me i had freedom to do EVERYTHING, but nobody explained to me what freedom meant.
So I had to figure that out on my own. I think meeting new friends, and talking to older people, helped me.
Q: What are some misconceptions that Americans have about North Korea?
A: Not many Americans know the difference between North Korea and South Korea until recent years, so I think that we are missing so much information from the ground level, the average North Korean family lifestyle. When we talk about “North Korea,” we talk about nuclear weapons or communism or dictatorship. It’s important those things be highlighted, but they also overshadow the ordinary people. North Korean men, when they reach age 17 or 18, they must serve in the military as a duty for the nation. So in some sense, almost every average North Korean family is somewhat tied to the military. When I was in North Korea, about 9 years ago, a lot of people lost jobs. They didn’t really know what to do. A lot of people become jobless, and I think it was confusing, the moments when people were still trying to figure out what to do with their lives that were not appointed by the government.
Q: Did you know that the political prison camps in North Korea existed when you lived there? If so, what did you know about them?
A: I had heard of Camp 22, because it was nearby by my hometown, but I definitely was not aware or knew about the level of severity or the harshness that they were facing. The prison camps are even more isolated than North Korea itself, so I didn’t really know much about it. I actually learned about them after i came to the US, from other North Korean defectors or survivors from the camps.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you’ve learned upon coming to America?
A: When I was in American Consulate in China, I saw a car in the building. And I remember going to see that car more and more every day. I was hoping to have that car one day. But then I came to America, I realized that the same type of branding car was used as a taxi, and that was really surprising, because I thought that was the best car ever in the world.
I expected coming to America, thinking that I would end up in New York, with high buildings, tall buildings and really city, big cities. But I ended up going to Richmond, Virginia, where I realized that i was almost in the middle of a forest. The next morning I woke up, there was a deer around. That was confusing for us. Because the America I imagined was a big city, with really tall buildings. So that was also where I was surprised. I thought I did something wrong to be in some other place.
Q: Have you ever been to South Korea, or met South Koreans? How do they usually react when they find out you are from North Korea?
A: I have not been able to go to South Korea yet, even though I am allowed to. But I have met many South Korean people. Especially students that are studying abroad. And I would say their reaction varies, but mostly they are surprised to learn that there are North Korean defectors living in the US. And I think living in the US, I have seen being a defector here has some benefits, because they are not necessarily targeted or discriminated against as being North Korean defectors, whereas in South Korea there can be prejudice and discrimination against North Korean defectors. One thing to describe is that North Koreans in early 1970s, South Korean society was very developed, so you can only imagine how difficult it must be for two communities to be engaged. So living in America, I have been treated by South Koreans and Americans as a friend.
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