Joseph Kim escaped from North Korea, one of the most isolated economies in the world, to the U.S. when he was 15 years old. Kim, now a college student in New York, recently wrote a book about his experience called “Under the Same Sky.”
He was interviewed by Marketplace host Lizzie O’Leary.
Lizzie O’Leary: Just before we started this interview, I asked you what you had for lunch, just to check our sound levels, and it really struck me that you had something pretty moving to say about that. Tell me what your reaction was when I said that to you.
Joseph Kim: I didn’t mean to throw you a heavy topic at the beginning. Growing up in North Korea, my father died of starvation when I was 12 years old. I became homeless around that age. So back then, the world — the entire world and dream and everything was associated with food. But now that I came to the states, I just didn’t realize that I hadn’t eaten anything until today, until you asked me… I think it’s a very ironic that I forget. The fact is that even at this moment, there are so many other North Korean boys and girls who are still — the dream is still to be able to have a full three meals a day.
Joseph Kim (Copyright Martin Bentsen)
O’Leary: You escaped North Korea, you went to China and you made your way here. What does the idea of security mean to you? There’s been so much insecurity in your life, until now. What is security?
Kim: My world, in a sense, was very narrow. Like as long as I had a full meal per day, I didn’t have to go starve. I think that was my ideal, perfect, I guess Utopian world.
O’Leary: Coming as a teenage boy from a place where you were thinking about daily things like food, and now you’re in college in the US, I wonder what you think about money, financial success. And what you think about Americans’ sort of obsession with it.
Kim: I shared earlier that my life was about finding food. But then coming to America, that was provided. I didn’t have to work to like fight for it as I did in North Korea, so I was really struggling…. In a sense my dream was achieved. And I didn’t know what to do with my life. I didn’t know what else to look for, so that was a hard. Now that I live in the states, I think insecurity is probably what everyone struggles [with], whether you’re rich or poor, more so with wealthy people. I think they’re more insecure.
O’Leary: You think so?
Kim: Yeah, I can see some of that patterns from — not my friends, but in the movies, like the more rich you are, the more you’re kind of a slave to your entitlement, and money. I understand.
O’Leary: And yet you don’t seem … angry at us, or frustrated at us for taking so much for granted.
Kim: I wanted to be angry, but I also know it’s not [the] right thing to be. I can’t hate because, they worked hard to get that too. And also, it was not their choice — it was not like they’re like, “Oh let me born in America.” It was never their choice. So, I can’t really like hate them, or be mad about it … for being who they are. But I would love to remind them that … it’s OK to not be billionaires. Like, you still get to live.