By Ha Young Kwen, 16, Wilson HS (Hacienda Heights)
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Photo courtesy of LiNK.

I interviewed Joseph, a North Korean refugee who came to the United States three years ago when he was 17. He was born in North Korea but his father died of starvation when he was 13 and his sister and mom disappeared so he was left an orphan. When he was 15 he escaped to China, where he found LiNK, an organization that helps North Korean refugees. While living in a LiNK shelter, the organization helped him resettle in the United States. He spent this summer in Los Angeles, studying for the SAT’s at LiNK’s office, where I interviewed him over the phone.

L.A. Youth: Where were you born?
Joseph: I was born in Hamgyongbukto province.

Did you attend school in North Korea and what was it like?
I went to elementary school, which was four years. The school system is pretty similar to what we have in America but the difference is we have to wear uniforms every day.

Do they brainwash students?
Even from kindergarten we learned about how great Kim Jong-il is. We were already indoctrinated.

Is everyone malnourished?
I cannot say everyone but I probably can say 60 percent. 70-80 percent in my area.

After you were orphaned in North Korea, what did you do? Did you have relatives who could take care of you?
I had some relatives but since they have a food crisis they really couldn’t take care of me. I was only 13 and I really didn’t understand. Why do I have to go through this? I had to sit on the street and beg people. When I was in elementary school I couldn’t even get along with my friends because I was so shy. I couldn’t even approach someone to say, “Hi, my name is.” But then my situation changed my personality and perspective. I had to do anything to survive. I hated my parents a lot of course because in my mind I thought, why would you let me in this world if you cannot take care of me? I think I just didn’t understand why it was happening to me. I couldn’t even blame it on someone else. If something is going wrong [now], I might blame it on God, why are you doing this to me? But in North Korea there’s nothing I could blame or ask. I couldn’t find answers.

Click here to read about how Ha Young learned about the humanitarian crisis in North Korea and how it’s affected her.

After you became an orphan, I heard you worked at a mine.
I had a lot of different jobs. But the most memorable thing was when I was working as a coal miner.

How difficult was it to cross over the Tumen River into China? Weren’t you afraid of getting shot by North Korean guards patrolling around the river?
Crossing the river is not that hard. It’s like only 100 yards. There were North Korean guards who had the authority to shoot someone. I had to make a decision. What made me try was I thought of dying of starvation.

In China, how did you find out about LiNK?
Everything was so new to me. I never thought that there would be a country like China. During the nighttime it’s brighter than daytime [in North Korea] with all the lights. It was a totally different experience. But I wasn’t safe so I was always scared of getting caught by Chinese authorities.

I found LiNK’s shelter after I lived in China for six months. I would say LiNK found me. In China I don’t know where LiNK is and they don’t put their name on their forehead and say this is LiNK and we’re looking for North Koreans. LiNK’s members search for North Koreans.

How long did you stay in LiNK’s shelter in China?
About two months.

What did you do at LiNK’s shelter? What did they provide you with?
They provide happiness. In China I really couldn’t enjoy my life but when I was in LiNK’s shelter I had hope. They helped me learn Chinese and of course study and educate myself.

How did you come to the U.S.?
LiNK helped me out. They asked me “Do you want to go to America?” and explained the benefit. I trusted them and I trusted their word. So I gave permission to them to lead me to the American consulate.

Could you choose where you lived in America?
Not really. The U.S. government chose for me. I live with an American foster mom in Virginia. There were other foster kids from Burma and Myanmar.

Was it difficult to learn English?
Yes. I literally didn’t know how to say, “I’m hungry.”

Do you attend school?
Yes I do. I attend public school in Virginia. I have tutors in California studying SATs. I have one more year of high school.

What are your hobbies?
I like to play soccer a lot. Some say my hobby is studying but that is not true. I like to eat. I like to hang out with friends.

How does religion play in your life?
I go to church regularly. When I was in China there were not many people who were willing to help me out and my request was not to treat me as a king or queen. I simply asked them to please give me something that I can eat to survive. Many people refused my questions and I felt bad for them. They have enough food, why would they not feed me? Most of the people who helped me out were the Christians. They didn’t try to convert me but I was curious. What kind of people are they? Why would you help me out? They’d say it’s God’s will. I guess that’s how I came to respect Jesus and I ended up accepting Jesus Christ.

What is your dream in life?
My dream for now is to go to college and educate myself. My ultimate dream is to someway, somehow, continue to work with LiNK. I just want to help North Koreans.