A North Korean Defector Living in the USA Answered the Internet’s Questions
Joseph Kim has seen a world that practically all of us have only ever heard about. Born and raised in the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea, after his father died of starvation and his mother and sister fled to China, Joseph was left to fend for himself on the streets of the notoriously isolated country, before he was eventually rescued by US charity Liberty in North Korea at the age of 16.
Being thrown from North Korea, a country which is well-known for manipulating its citizens and shutting them out from the rest of the world, to a Western society would be an unfathomably difficult upheaval, so Joseph took to Reddit this week in order to conduct an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session to tell the Internet his incredible story, along with dispelling some myths about North Korea and its citizens.
Here are the highlights from the session:
On what he was most surprised to learn about the world after leaving North Korea…
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.
On how much North Korea’s dictatorship keeps secret from the rest of the world…
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.
On if the average citizen in the country believes the North Korean propaganda…
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 1970’s, 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.
On whether he’s worried about any potential repercussions from North Korea…
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.
On whether or not he believes North Korea will become liberated…
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.
On what kept him going whilst in North Korea…
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.
On misconceptions North Americans have about North Korea…
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.