When World War II ended in 1945, Japan lost control of Korea to Allied forces. In much the same way that Germany was split after the war, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union administering the northern half and the United States administering the southern half.
The foreign administration of North and South Korea was intended to be temporary, and plans had been laid for free elections in the two districts. However, in 1948, Kim Il-sung, communist-aligned leader of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), convinced Soviet leaders not to allow UN (United Nations) authorities north of the dividing line. So the election never took place in North Korea. By the end of 1948, two new nations had been formally established: The Republic of Korea was established in the south, led by the democratically elected President Syngman Rhee. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared in the north, with Kim Il-sung established as Premier (with support of the USSR).
North Korea was added in 1988, following the 1987 bombing of a South Korean air flight landing near Myanmar and re-listed again in 2017.
Over a million North Koreans died of starvation during this time
300,000 North Koreans have defected and left North korea for ever since 1953
I was born and raised in North Korea. Although my family constantly struggled against poverty, I was always loved and cared for first, because I was the only son and the youngest of two in the family.
—— I was four years old. My sister and I would go searching for firewood starting at 5 in the morning and come back after midnight. I would wander the streets searching for food, and I remember seeing a small child tied to a mother's back eating chips, and wanting to steal them from him. Hunger is humiliation. Hunger is hopelessness. For a hungry child, politics and freedom are not even thought of. On my ninth birthday, my parents couldn't give me any food to eat. But even as a child, I could feel the heaviness in their hearts.
when I was 13 years old, my father died. I saw my father wither away and die. In the same year, my mother disappeared one day, and then my sister told me that she was going to China to earn money, but that she would return with money and food soon. Since we had never been separated, and I thought we would be together forever, I didn't even give her a hug when she left. It was the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life. But again, I didn't know it was going to be a long goodbye. I have not seen my mom or my sister since then.
Suddenly, I became an orphan and homeless. My daily life became very hard, but very simple. My goal was to find a dusty piece of bread in the trash. But that is no way to survive. I started to realize, begging would not be the solution. So I started to steal from food carts in illegal markets. Sometimes, I found small jobs in exchange for food. Once, I even spent two months in the winter working in a coal mine, 33 meters underground without any protection for up to 16 hours a day. I was not uncommon. Many other orphans survived this way, or worse.
I had learned that many people tried to cross the border to China in the nighttime to avoid being seen. North Korean border guards often shoot and kill people trying to cross the border without permission. Chinese soldiers will catch and send back North Koreans, where they face severe punishment. I decided to cross during the day, first because I was still a kid and scared of the dark, second because I knew I was already taking a risk, and since not many people tried to cross during the day, I thought I might be able to cross without being seen by anyone.
I made it to China on February 15, 2006. I was 16 years old. I thought things in China would be easier, since there was more food. I thought more people would help me. But it was harder than living in North Korea, because I was not free. I was always worried about being caught and sent back.
By a miracle, some months later, I met someone who was running an underground shelter for North Koreans, and was allowed to live there and eat regular meals for the first time in many years. Later that year, an activist helped me escape China and go to the United States as a refugee.
I went to America without knowing a word of English, yet my social worker told me that I had to go to high school. Even in North Korea, I was an F student. (Laughter) And I barely finished elementary school. And I remember I fought in school more than once a day. Textbooks and the library were not my playground. My father tried very hard to motivate me into studying, but it didn't work. At one point, my father gave up on me. He said, "You're not my son anymore." I was only 11 or 12, but it hurt me deeply. But nevertheless, my level of motivation still didn't change before he died. So in America, it was kind of ridiculous that they said I should go to high school. I didn't even go to middle school. I decided to go, just because they told me to, without trying much.
I have not seen my sister in ten years . 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. (Laughter) 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.
—— Joseph Kim