Hi everyone! My name is Joseph Kim proof and I'm a North Korean who is now living in the U.S.

After my father died of starvation during the famine of the 1990s, my mother and sister went to China. I was left homeless, living on the streets and having to steal and beg to survive. I eventually escaped to China where I connected with Liberty in North Korea and they helped me get out of China and resettle in the United States. With the support of my foster family, I was able to graduate high school and now I'm working on a bachelor's degree in international relations.

I've had some amazing opportunities since resettling. I spoke from the TEDGlobal stage in 2013 and this year I spoke at the UN. Just this month, I published a memoir about my life titled "Under the Same Sky". Find it here:

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Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is a global movement of people that believe in and work alongside the North Korean people to accelerate change. Their efforts are focused in 3 key areas: Working with Refugees, Changing the Narrative, and Research & Strategy. Utilizing a modern-day underground railroad through China and Southeast Asia, LiNK rescues refugees and helps them to reach freedom. LiNK’s global grassroots movement works to redefine public perception on North Korea, shifting attention away from the politics and onto the people, and provides a way for concerned citizens to come alongside the North Korean people and help bring about positive change. LiNK also works to develop people-focused strategies that will have the potential to promote change inside North Korea in the long term.

Update: Thank you for the interest and support for the North Korean people. I ask you to continue lending your ears for the North Korean people and their stories. And I hope really we can work together to make this a better place.

Comments: 1006 • Responses: 31  • Date: 

veryneurotic822 karma

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?

JosephKim_NK1201 karma

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.

lmi6720 karma

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? Thank you for taking the time to do this AMA!

JosephKim_NK1665 karma

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.

ByeByeEmpire468 karma

Do you think we'll see North Korea liberated in our lifetime?

JosephKim_NK646 karma

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.

_Bucket_Of_Truth_413 karma

Are you ever worried about repercussions for going public about escaping North Korea?

JosephKim_NK787 karma

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.

Frajer362 karma

How much of what goes on in North Korea is kept secret?

JosephKim_NK757 karma

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.

rayjenningz311 karma

Did you ever have any situations where it could be life or death?

JosephKim_NK599 karma

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.

grumblyman246 karma

Thank you very much for taking the time to do this AMA. It's important that people know about the things happening in the world, to human beings, right this moment. Too often people in the west believe that violent nationalist totalitarianism is something that stopped with the end of the cold war.

That said, 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?

JosephKim_NK503 karma

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.

Psilo707238 karma

I live in Gimcheon, South Korea and have volunteered for LiNK before as well as doing some work at the Mulmangcho (Refugee/Relocation) School in Yeoju, so I have had some contact with younger-to-teen North Koreans before, but rarely are they outspoken and knowledgeable enough to get insight from.

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?

I have been to the DMZ multiple times, and I really hope someday the bridge with all of the South Korean's long-lost notes to their North Korean relatives can be taken down.

JosephKim_NK340 karma

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.

sdfsdfsdfsdffd222 karma

How much of what we read in the western news about north korea is not true or is propaganda, would you estimate?

Like: Kim Jung executing a member of government for falling asleep or the recent Sony/American hacks

JosephKim_NK306 karma

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.

xTerraTerrariax177 karma

What kept you going? Like what gave you hope during all of this?

JosephKim_NK332 karma

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.

LeatherJacketPotato144 karma

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?

JosephKim_NK213 karma

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.

ManInAmsterdam126 karma

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?

JosephKim_NK193 karma

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.

sski333107 karma

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? Thanks for doing this AMA, I'm really interested in what life is like in a country like that. It just all seems so surreal to me.

JosephKim_NK167 karma

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.

hellohobbit102 karma

What are some misconceptions that Americans have about North Korea?

JosephKim_NK202 karma

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.

SweetAlmighty101 karma

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.

JosephKim_NK337 karma

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.

anon409685 karma

Hey Joseph, I'm very proud of you for doing what you did! Did you know that the political prison camps in North Korea existed when you lived there? If so, what did you know about them? Thanks!

JosephKim_NK135 karma

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.

igotmeacoldpop83 karma

I loved your video on TED!! Tears were shed...

What was the most surprising thing you've learned upon coming to America?

JosephKim_NK296 karma

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.

JosephKim_NK252 karma

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.

Kng_Wasabi70 karma

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?

JosephKim_NK168 karma

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 1970's, 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.

Dogpool70 karma

What does the youth do with their free time?

JosephKim_NK145 karma

I mean, I became homeless at a very young age, so I don't really know what is a traditional activity for youth. But according to what I observed, hanging out with their friends, outdoors more than in America, because in North Korea there is no internet, no computers, not much video games or things that you have in the U.S. So I'm assuming there were more outdoor activities, such as exploring the city.

scha341864 karma

Do you get the opportunity to meet up with other North Koreans that have resettled in the US?

JosephKim_NK108 karma

Yes, I do.

I mean, America is a really big country, as you know. So it is quite difficult for us to physically be near. But we can also stay in touch through telephones, or social media.

Bennipulle1261 karma

Hi Joseph.

I'm really excited to read your book and it's great that you're supporting link with it!

What do North Koreans learn about European countries, if they learn anything at all? I know they learn a lot about Japan, China, South Korea and America, but in no book or article have I ever found a Korean perspective about European countries. Are they educated enough to know European countries, do they know the typical stereotypes (eg Germans wear leather pants and it always rains in Britain etc)? Thank you and good luck!

JosephKim_NK257 karma

Well, based on my experience, I didn't really go to Middle School or High School, so I don't know if High school learned about Europe. But I can say that there is a really limited concept or even images of Europe. Because North Korean government is heavily emphasizing how bad Japan and America are, because there was so little information about Europe, I don't think they didn't even have stereotypes of Europeans. For example, when I was in China, because I was offered to come to America, I wanted to learn more about America, so I decided to find an American movie so I could learn about the country. And it was in Chinese, so I didn't understand the movie, and a Chinese friend came to me and said "What are you trying to do?" and I said "Trying to learn about America" and he said "Well, this is a German movie." That is how little i knew. In my mind, I thought it was American movie because there were white actors.

christina_sewell58 karma

What was/is the most difficult thing about transitioning to life here in the United States? And if you could give the world one piece of advice for us to best assist the North Korean human rights situation, what would that be?

Thank you so much for doing this AMA and all your efforts to shed light on the human rights injustices going on in NK.

JosephKim_NK86 karma

To find out what I like about, and what I don't like about, and what I wanted to do. Just to understand American society was probably the hardest part.

One thing I can recommend is just to respond. I think to know the situation. I think information is the key to helping the issue. I don't think many people know about the harshness and suffering that North Koreans face, so learning about that is probably the first step. And there are so many resources out there. There are FOI out there, so many documentaries about average North Korean lives, how difficult it is, even the small YouTube clips can be very informational, and i hope that would motivate people to respond to the issue.

bigflume49 karma

In the books I've read it suggests a few times that North Koreans might just be aware of the state of their government and country all together but are too scared to even show the slightest knowledge of it. Would you say this is true or is the isolation really as heavy as it seems? I'm only unsure of this as I'm aware of the smugglers who move between the DPRK and China all the time.

ps. I look forward to reading your book and I wish you all the luck. :)

JosephKim_NK64 karma

I mean, yes. The way that North Korea keeps absolute control over its people was by limiting access to information. So definitely that is one way to control the society in the past. But I don't know how long that is going to last. I think that there would be a general consensus that things are bad. It's been almost 10 years since the great famine began, and over 1 million people have died of starvation. So it would not be completely illogical for people to think that there is something wrong about it.

NorbitGorbit42 karma

what is the largest black market profit to be made in NK? Would it be possible to improve conditions by the black market?

JosephKim_NK64 karma

In terms of the numbers, I am assuming that a lot of imports from foreign countries like China or Japan might be the biggest profit. But I don't have answers for that, I'm sorry.

chang_choi_20639 karma

Thank you for doing this Joseph! You are an inspiration and a beacon of hope in the world. Do you believe in this lifetime that we will be able to travel freely to North Korea? My father is 80 years old and left Hamhung just after WWII. He never speaks about having hope to go back, but I am curious to visit there one day.

JosephKim_NK47 karma

I hope that the day comes, when your father can go back. Sooner or later.

tina-cheung29 karma

Hi Joseph, Your biography has been really hard to put down! Thank you for your dedication in sharing your story for the North Korean people and for us. What has been the most lasting effect from living under the regime to this day?

JosephKim_NK81 karma

I definitely have nightmares. And I think in a sense it actually helps me, because sometimes I forget how grateful I am to live in America, and whenever I have nightmares, it reminds me of where I have come from. And so that is probably one thing.

And I think knowing that we have so much food here. But not being able to deliver that to so many homeless kids that live the life I was living only 8 years ago. So not being able to be so helpful can also be frustrating.

fittysix28 karma

What were the pros of living in North Korea? We all know it sucks, but surely there must have been something positive to come out of it.

JosephKim_NK79 karma

I mean, my answer is very biased, since I am from North Korea, it is still my home country. I think North Korea has beautiful nature, and there is so much resources that can be used to develop better economy for unified Korea.

LibertyMango25 karma

Is it difficult to find western, or non-North Korean, media and entertainment in underground markets? (dvds, films, newspapers, etc)

JosephKim_NK56 karma

Again, I am not currently living in North Korea, so I can't really say for currently, but what I have learned from recent defectors, I am told that access to foreign media, especially South Korean dramas and movies, are more accessible. And it's definitely easier than decades ago. So I would say it is getting easier.

ishabad19 karma

What caused you to leave NK?

JosephKim_NK62 karma

Mostly because I didn't see much hope to survive in North Korea much longer, because at this point, I lived on the street as a homeless kid for about 3 years. And I could die of starvation like my father did, or try to escape North Korea for a better life.

jamesarnall18 karma

Do you think that the recent troop deployments by the Chinese along the Tumen River will impact the ability of North Koreans to escape, as well as hurt LiNK's ability to help them? Thank you :)

JosephKim_NK42 karma

I actually don't know the answer.