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How the Cross Led a Starving North Korean to America

Military demonstration with flag in North Korea


John Burger - published on 06/08/15

Joseph Kim tells story of how underground Christians smuggled him to freedom

In Korea, the only "god" he knew was the country’s leader, Kim Il-Sung, and any perceived blasphemy against him could land a person in a prison camp.

So when Joseph Kim finally crossed the Tumen river into China, he did what he was told—follow the cross—even though he didn’t know what a cross or a Christian was.

Kim tells his story in a new book, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and at a time when North Korea occasionally surfaces in the headlines for its continuing beligerence towards the West, the tale gives some insight into life in the largely hidden society. 

And a harrowing tale it is. 

Kim and his family led a relatively normal life until the death of Kim Il-Sung, followed by Russia’s cutting off foreign aid to North Korea. Combined with severe weather events, the political move left the socialist country open to a severe famine. Kim recalls filling his belly with whatever his parents could scrounge up but having the feeling that his body was not getting enough nutrition. Eventually, a handful of weeds was about the only thing the family had each day. On some days, it was only a few sips of water. 

Death and misery were rampant throughout the country. Kim’s own father died, despite heroic efforts to feed his family. His mother finally decided to engage a broker who could smuggle her and her children into neighboring China. She was caught and sent to prison. Before she was arrested, she had sold Kim’s sister to a Chinese man. Alone now, the 12-year-old Kim lived with relatives and finally landed in a detention center, which had its own set of horrors. Finally, by age 15, on a cold winter night, he snuck across the frozen Tumen River.

Safely on the Chinese side of that natural boundary, Kim followed the "sign of the cross" to a church, and was eventually plugged in to a Christian underground network. A pastor helped him blend into Chinese society, and a missionary offered Kim a way to get to the United States. As the New York Post’s Maureen Callahan relates it: 

Kim was taken to a shelter in Yanji that was partly run by an American nonprofit called LiNK (Liberty in North Korea). After two months, a young American man named Adrian introduced himself to Kim and explained that he would be taking Kim and two other boys out of China and helping them get to America.

Thanks to Adrian, Kim was admitted to the US Consulate, where he stayed for four months before traveling to the United States. In the US, 
Kim was met by a social worker and placed with a foster family. Catholic Charities sponsored him. He was 17 and barely spoke English, but over time he learned the language and graduated from high school. 
Today, at 24, he is about to start college and dreams of working for an NGO and
 helping other North Koreans.

He hopes, also, to find his mother and sister. At the end of a TED Talk in 2013, Kim recorded messages to both:

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. 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 to his mother:

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.

North KoreaRefugees
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