The Story of Joseph: A North Korean Fugitive

Today Google hosted a talk internally from a guest speaker named Joseph Kim. Joseph is a North Korean refugee that fled from North Korea to China and then to America where he is now living a life he never dreamed possible. He has given many talks where you can hear about his full story (TED) but I just wanted to highlight some of the miraculous and inspiring things that I took away from the talk/Q&A session afterwards.

Crossing the Frozen River: Growing up and Escaping to China

The first thing that strikes me is that Joseph is so young but has been through so many things we could never dream of. He escaped to America at the age of 16 and is currently attending college here. When he was 12 the great famine hit North Korea. As a result, his father died of starvation. Furthermore, his mom was forced to sell his sister to slavery in China and then, when she tried to go back to China to find her, she was imprisoned and never seen by Joseph again.

After losing his entire family at the age of 12, Joseph was homeless and had no choice but to beg and scavenge for food. After three years of extreme poverty he decided that it was impossible for him to continue to live like this and so he decided that he would try to escape to China to find a better life.

He recounted that getting to China was the most dangerous thing he had to do. The way that most people make it to China out of North Korea is by bribing the security guards. He could not do this because he did not have any money and so he had to risk getting caught and thrown in prison. He had heard from people talking that most people ran across at night so he took a chance and decided to run across during the day in hope that the security guards would not expect it.

What I found as the most amazing part of this story is that in order to get to China he actually had to run across a frozen river that defined the border. In the end he ran during the day and due to what he described as “nothing short of a miracle,” there were no guards and he made it across.

His Name: Finding Refuge in the China

One important thing to know is that Joseph is not his original name. He originally had a Korean name.

Once Joseph got to China he assumed that he would be much better off but things got even harder for him because not only did he not speak the language, but there was also strict policies against aiding North Korean refugees. After weeks of begging and searching for food and shelter, he finally found a Catholic Youth organization that took him in and helped him survive.

The organization could not keep him for long because if they were discovered to be harboring a fugitive they would be heavily fined and punished. For this same reason, many potential hosts were unwilling to take him in. However, finally, the organization found an old Chinese-Korean lady that was potentially willing to host him.

The one condition was that the lady was only willing to host him if God’s will was for her to host him. The representative from the organization asked how she would know what God’s will was. She said that when she met with him, she would ask him if his name was Joseph. If he said yes then she would take him in and if he said no then he would not have him.

This was supposed to be a secret but the representative from the organization went to Joseph before the meeting and told him that he had to say yes and live under this new name. Joseph said that this was the absolute hardest thing for him. He felt like he had already given up everything that a person could give up. He gave up his family, he gave up his dignity, he gave up his pride, and now he was being asked to give up the one thing that he still held as his identity.

However, he finally came to terms with it because he truly had no other choice and so he said yes when the lady, who he now calls his grandma, asked him if he was Joseph. He keeps his name as Joseph because he wants to honor the generosity and hospitality that she showed him during his stay with her.

One truly inspiring thing that a member of the audience pointed out was the biblical significance of the name Joseph. In the bible Joseph was sold as an egyptian slave but then makes it to freedom and eventually brings food and greater prosperity to his people. Joseph said that his grandma told this story to him hundreds of times.

Joseph’s goal in life (our Joseph) is to liberate and feed his people so that no one has to go through what he had to go through growing up. While he was extremely modest, the audience member suggested and prayed that he would be able to fulfill his name and maybe bring the same hope, food, and prosperity to his starving people back in North Korea.

Living in America and Future Goals

Joseph was eventually accepted into America as a North Korean refugee after about a year in China. Since then he has been living with Catholic organizations and getting all the food and shelter he could ever hope for while pursuing an education.

The unique perspective that Joseph gave during the talk was the change in ambition that he faced when he came to America. Back in North Korea and China Joseph’s entire life was centered around getting food and everything he ever dreamed of amounted to being lucky enough to get a full meal every day.

After coming to America food was in abundance for him and he had difficulty trying to find a new purpose in life now that he was no longer living day to day looking for food. I think this just underscores the importance of efforts to end world hunger because without food people’s lives are reduced to a singular effort to attain it. We are so lucky that we can have hopes and dreams that extend beyond survival.

The new purpose that Joseph has found in his life is to try and increase awareness of the harsh realities facing North Koreans. He believes that the story of the individual struggles, like his own, are often lost in the political narrative that surrounds the country. He currently gives talks and shares his story with people to try and shift the focus as best he can.

Beyond awareness he is currently pursuing a degree in business and political science. He hopes that after he gains experience in these two fields, and after North Korea either open’s up to the world or the government collapses, he can take his expertise to his home country and become a policymaker to try and turn things around.

Those are just some of the parts that stuck with me from the talk that he gave. If you want to learn more about his life/story then there is the TED Talk as well as his own personal memoirs.

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