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I was born and raised in North Korea. Although my family constantly struggled against poverty, I was always loved and cared for first, because I was the only son and the youngest of two in the family.
But then the great famine began in 1994. I was four years old. My sister and I would go searching for firewood starting at 5 in the morning and come back after midnight. I would wander the streets searching for food, and I remember seeing a small child tied to a mother's back eating chips, and wanting to steal them from him.
Hunger is humiliation. Hunger is hopelessness. For a hungry child, politics and freedom are not even thought of. On my ninth birthday, my parents couldn't give me any food to eat. But even as a child, I could feel the heaviness in their hearts.
Over a million North Koreans died of starvation in that time, and in 2003, when I was 13 years old, my father became one of them. I saw my father wither away and die. In the same year, my mother disappeared one day, and then my sister told me that she was going to China to earn money, but that she would return with money and food soon. Since we had never been separated, and I thought we would be together forever, I didn't even give her a hug when she left. It was the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life. But again, I didn't know it was going to be a long goodbye. I have not seen my mom or my sister since then.
Suddenly, I became an orphan and homeless. My daily life became very hard, but very simple. My goal was to find a dusty piece of bread in the trash. But that is no way to survive. I started to realize, begging would not be the solution. So I started to steal from food carts in illegal markets. Sometimes, I found small jobs in exchange for food. Once, I even spent two months in the winter working in a coal mine, 33 meters underground without any protection for up to 16 hours a day. I was not uncommon. Many other orphans survived this way, or worse.
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. I don't mean big, grand hope. I mean the kind of hope that made me believe that the next trash can had bread, even though it usually didn't. But if I didn't believe it, I wouldn't even try, and then I would die. Hope kept me alive. Every day, I told myself, no matter how hard things got, still I must live.
After three years of waiting for my sister's return, I decided to go to China to look for her myself. I realized I couldn't survive much longer this way. I knew the journey would be risky, but I would be risking my life either way. I could die of starvation like my father in North Korea, or at least I could try for a better life by escaping to China.
I had learned that many people tried to cross the border to China in the nighttime to avoid being seen. North Korean border guards often shoot and kill people trying to cross the border without permission. Chinese soldiers will catch and send back North Koreans, where they face severe punishment. I decided to cross during the day, first because I was still a kid and scared of the dark, second because I knew I was already taking a risk, and since not many people tried to cross during the day, I thought I might be able to cross without being seen by anyone.
I made it to China on February 15, 2006. I was 16 years old. I thought things in China would be easier, since there was more food. I thought more people would help me. But it was harder than living in North Korea, because I was not free. I was always worried about being caught and sent back.
By a miracle, some months later, I met someone who was running an underground shelter for North Koreans, and was allowed to live there and eat regular meals for the first time in many years. Later that year, an activist helped me escape China and go to the United States as a refugee.
I went to America without knowing a word of English, yet my social worker told me that I had to go to high school. Even in North Korea, I was an F student. (Laughter) And I barely finished elementary school. And I remember I fought in school more than once a day. Textbooks and the library were not my playground. My father tried very hard to motivate me into studying, but it didn't work. At one point, my father gave up on me. He said, "You're not my son anymore." I was only 11 or 12, but it hurt me deeply. But nevertheless, my level of motivation still didn't change before he died. So in America, it was kind of ridiculous that they said I should go to high school. I didn't even go to middle school. I decided to go, just because they told me to, without trying much.
But one day, I came home and my foster mother had made chicken wings for dinner. And during dinner, I wanted to have one more wing, but I realized there were not enough for everyone, so I decided against it. When I looked down at my plate, I saw the last chicken wing, that my foster 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. Suddenly I remembered my biological father. My foster father's small act of love reminded me of my father, who would love to share his food with me when he was hungry, even if he was starving. I felt so suffocated that I had so much food in America, yet my father died of starvation. My only wish that night was to cook a meal for him, and that night I also thought of what else I could do to honor him. And my answer was to promise to myself that I would study hard and get the best education in America to honor his sacrifice.
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 a direction, and he motivated me and gave me a purpose to live 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, have hope 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 the hope will bring you bread to keep you alive. But I confidently believe that your act of love and caring can also save another Joseph's life and change thousands of other Josephs who are still having hope to survive.
Adrian Hong: Joseph, thank you for sharing that very personal and special story with us. I know you haven't seen your sister for, you said, it was almost exactly a decade, and in the off chance that she may be able to see this, we wanted to give you an opportunity to send her a message.
Nuna, it has been already 10 years that I haven’t seen you. I just wanted to say that I miss you, and I love you, and please come back to me and stay alive. And I -- oh, gosh. I still haven't given up my hope to see you. I will live my life happily and study hard until I see you, and I promise I will not cry again. (Laughter) Yes, I'm just looking forward to seeing you, and if you can't find me, I will also look for you, and I hope to see you one day. And can I also make a small message to my mom?
JK: I haven't spent much time with you, but I know that you still love me, and you probably still pray for me and think about me. I just wanted to say thank you for letting me be in this world. Thank you.
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A refugee now living in the US, Joseph Kim tells the story of his life in North Korea during the famine years. He's begun to create a new life -- but he still searches for the family he lost.
Joseph Kim escaped alone from North Korea at the age of 16, first to China and then to the United States. Full bio »