Christianity was the only way out, says North Korean defector
Posted on March 31st, 2016


Joseph Kim revered the Great Leader as a child, but on arriving in China he realised that if he embraced Jesus missionaries would help him escape

The first time Joseph Kim heard the words Christian” and church”, he had no idea what they meant. He had never seen a church and Christianity was as unfamiliar to him in his famine-ravaged North Korea as Disneyland.

Kwang Jin”, a friend said to him, using the Korean name by which Kim was then known, if you ever go to China, the churches will give you money.”

To which Kim replied: What’s a church? Why would they just give you money?”

Because they’re Christians,” the friend said.

What are Christians?” Kim asked.

That Kim should have known nothing about Christianity when he was growing up in North Korea was hardly surprising. Born in 1990, the only belief system to which he was exposed as a child was reverence, mixed with fear, for the Great Leader.

When he was very young he was taught in kindergarten about the magical powers of Kim Il-sung, then supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Kim learned that the dictator was the smartest man in the world and that he was able to fly around the countryside keeping watch over all his children.

But if the cult of the Great Leader left no room for Christianity, or any other organised religion in Kim’s youth, the importance of money was most certainly not lost on him. Prolonged famine had struck the country when he was five, killing more than a million people and in effect turning Kim into an orphan. His father died of hunger-induced illness, his mother ended up in a North Korean prison camp, and his beloved sister was probably sold as a child bride in China.

As he describes in his memoir of becoming a defector, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America, Kim was driven to increasingly desperate measures to survive. He ate wild plants and raspberry leaves, snails and grasshoppers, lived by petty crime and joined a network of homeless thieves called the gangster brothers”.

Eventually in 2006, at the age of 16, he decided he had nothing left to lose and made the perilous journey from his town of Hoeryong in the north of the country across the Tumen river into China.

He remembered what his friend had told him about churches giving money, which chimed with what somebody told him as he knocked on doors in search of food inside China. You must go to a Christian church,” a Chinese woman said.

How do I find this church?” he asked.

Look for a cross,” she replied.

His search took him to a number of churches in Tumen City, the Chinese town where he arrived close to the North Korean border, and through them he was introduced to a network of Chinese-Korean Christians who were to prove his salvation.

If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know what other route I could have taken,” Kim said in an interview with the Guardian in New York, where he now lives. I didn’t have any relatives or friends I could find inside China, so this was my only hope.”

Unbeknown to Kim at that time, his connection with the Christians meant that he had entered the most sophisticated underground support network for North Korean defectors then in existence inside China.

Backed with money and logistical support from South Korean-based, largely Presbyterian, churches, an intricate system was in place for hiding away, and then providing escape routes, for people who had fled famine or persecution in the DPRK.

In Kim’s case, he was sheltered in the home of a Korean-Chinese woman, aged about 75, whom he called Grandma. A woman of strong faith, she was a member of a South Korean church, which paid some of her rent and the expenses she incurred looking after North Korean defectors.

It was a dangerous arrangement. If Grandma had been caught harbouring Kim, she would have faced a 5,000-yuan (£520) penalty – an enormous sum for her. If Kim had been caught, he would have been deported back to North Korea, where his connection with Christianity would have been severely punished.

Public execution would have been highly possible, but definitely I would have been sent to a prison camp back in North Korea,” he said.

The shelter and food that Kim received from Grandma and her Christian network did not come entirely without a cost. He was expected to embrace the religion. He attended Bible-reading lessons, and later Grandma took him to underground church services.

At first it was all gobbledygook to him. When he arrived in China from North Korea he was, he said, nothing more than an animal who wants to live and have a bite to eat. There was nothing else. My primary concern was to find food. If you didn’t constantly put yourself first, you would die. So ethics meant nothing to me, it was nothing more than a word.”

He admits in the early days he was only interested in what Christianity could give him. I was merely interested in the aid I could get from them. There was no sense of moral development.”

Over time, though, he did come to appreciate the lessons and to embrace the religion. The sacrifices made on his behalf by Grandma and other local Christians chimed with what he was reading in the Bible, and he started to understand the value of altruism.

Grandma made a huge sacrifice and took great risks to help me. And that matched the story of Jesus I read in the Bible and I started to understand.”

But there was another sacrifice he found more difficult to accept. Early on in his contact with the Christians in China, he was told to change his name from Kwang Jin to the biblical Joseph Kim. He was shocked and offended by the demand.

It was a mixture of anger plus sadness,” he said. I literally gave up everything I had to survive. I gave up my personality. I gave up the pride of being human. I had nothing to tie me to my parents and my past life. The only thing that identified me was my name – and now I was being told to give that up too.”

After around three months living under Grandma’s protection, Kim was introduced to a non-religious group called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which works with defectors hiding in China and helps them seek asylum. LiNK facilitated his journey to the US consulate in Shenyang, and after four months there he was relocated to the US, where he has lived for eight years.

Today he is preparing to start as an undergraduate at Bard College, New York, studying political science. He describes himself as a Christian and belongs to a South Korean church in Brooklyn. I’m not the most ideal Christian, but I am Christian,” he said.

Over time he has grown to appreciate Christianity as a loving, altruistic faith. But he has also wrestled with doubts about the religion and why he had to join it in exchange for food and shelter.

I didn’t feel tremendous force to join the religion, but it’s also true that I didn’t have any other option. No one said to me, ‘By the way you don’t have to become a Christian to get help.’

One thing Christianity could do to help address the question is to say to North Korean defectors, ‘It’s totally up to you – whether you join the religion or not – we’re going to help you regardless.’ I think that could be helpful, but I don’t know whether South Korean missionaries are prepared to do that.”

At moments of extreme doubt, Kim wonders whether Christianity could be another form of indoctrination. Even though no one forced me into Christianity, I definitely had internal pressure: if I didn’t believe in God, would they still be helping me?”

He said he was still struggling with that moral conundrum. But he also remains enduringly grateful for the sacrifices made on his behalf by Grandma, and he deeply regrets that he has been unable to contact her since leaving China to thank her personally for the new life she gave him. She played a huge role in my life – without her I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

5 Responses to “Christianity was the only way out, says North Korean defector”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Christianity or any other religion has nothing to do with a country’s progressive development. In a ‘Christian’ environment in most countries ones attachment to ones faith is minimal or non at all which make people think and work fearlessly without any constrains put by ones faith.
    So our Ambuda clad conniving politicians must wear like us here in UK and work like us without taking the humble people for a ride and putting the nation on jeopardy.
    Too busy with the fluctuating stock market… to stay on this web,sorry..

  2. Dham Says:

    Don’t be so greedy for money. I am sure you have enough.

  3. Nimal Says:

    I just learned that from Robin hood,not my self,must a simple life.

  4. Dham Says:

    You don’t have to earn from Stock Market(SM) you are a rich man already. SM crashed lately according to WW News Service. You must be loosing big time – SM is the new Robin Hood, not you.

  5. Nimal Says:

    As an one time Engineer connecting banks and stock brokers by high speed links realized that there’s still money being made even during glom and doom, that if one read between the lines.I have two normal businesses in UK where we have to put lot of hours and watch the pennies to break even while the companies dealing in stocks seems to afford huge overheads like big rents, very big salaries and the numerous people who sit behind computer screens for a few hours at a time is pampered with a gymn in the same premises wear out the daily stress of working behind the screens which is absurd, yet giving the company so much money as income.
    with careful study and getting to know these ‘hard people’ learned to get in to the same business myself, not suitable for faint heated. I make use of the gain as well as losses in the market. It’s is very convenient as I could stay anywhere in the world and still trade .My devious, lazy dishonest friend and relatives back home get some benefits of my hard earned, never could change them and that gravy train only last my life as my son is not willing to put up. Mage Karume thami!

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