In some ways, I imagine growing up in North Korea is like growing up anywhere else. I had a father and mother who rarely failed to show me love, and my older sister looked after me constantly. I caught dragonflies with friends and waited with excitement for cartoons to come on TV.
Then, in 1995, the worst of the Great Famine descended on the land, and the privileges of my childhood were stripped away.
When I was 12 years old, my father died of starvation. Our house was taken away to repay a debt we owed a family friend. That year, my mother fled to China with my sister in search of food and money. She returned a few months later, alone. She had sold my sister into bride slavery, a common fate for young North Korean refugees. My mother believed it would be a better life for my sister than the one waiting back home.
I don’t know that she even knew what sex trafficking is; most brokers highlight the benefits of being married to a Chinese man. She was hardly the only North Korean who had to make these kinds of impossible decisions. She continued to secretly travel to and from China until she was caught by the North Korean government and put in prison.
With my whole family gone, I lived on the streets. And the possibility of ever being loved started to fade for me. Before I had a chance to decide who I was on my own terms, my identity was defined by others: homeless, orphan, beggar. When I approached people in the food courts in the city markets, they would swat me away like a fly. No one said, “I see how weary and hopeless you must be.”
At age 15, I faced a choice: I could either starve like my father, or flee the country and hope to secure a better life outside its fortified borders. Between the certainty of death and the chance of survival, I chose survival.
I had heard that most North Koreans tried to cross the border into China during the night, so I planned my escape for midday in February 2006. I slipped down the banks of the Tumen River, coated my shoes in sandy silt for traction, and raced across the river’s icy surface to the far shore. It was a miracle that I made it.
I fled full of hope. I was sure I would have no difficulty finding food. I imagined Chinese families handing me their leftovers, as a bowl of rice was nothing for them. But once in China, reality hit. Almost no one wanted to share with me. They were irritated simply by my request for leftovers. I was so confused. This was not what I believed people were like.
For a few weeks, I was barely able to beg enough to survive. Then an elderly Chinese Korean woman approached me. “I am so sorry—there is nothing I can offer,” she said. “But you should go to a church.” She told me to look for a building with a cross.
I had seen a red cross on the gates of a hospital in North Korea. I had no idea what a cross had to do with church, but I followed her directions to a corner. I saw a few buildings, but none bore a red cross.
I stopped a man walking by. “Where can I find a cross?” I asked. “Look up.” And there it was.
This was my first time inside a church. It was late in the evening, and a few men lingered in the modest building. “I am from North Korea,” I said. “I don’t know anyone here and need help.” One of the men gave me 20 yuan (about $3) and told me that was all they could spare.
From that town in the northernmost part of China, I made my way to Yanji, then to Tumen City. I wandered around until I found another church. On the wall were written these words: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
It was as if someone was talking directly to me. I thought I heard a voice saying, I understand how exhausted you are and what a hopeless situation you are in. Give me your hands and I will take care of you.
A neatly dressed woman greeted me with a smile—despite the fact that I had not showered for weeks. “How may I help you?” she asked. I felt I needed to add urgency, so instead of giving her my usual speech, I lied. I told her I was on my way to meet my sister in another town and needed means to get there. The woman asked me to wait in the lobby. She came back with 50 yuan ($8) and wished me luck. It was the most cash I had ever held in my hands.
A few days later, I returned to the church, imagining I would receive another 50 yuan. This time, church members offered to let me stay temporarily. This was better than what I expected. I had been sleeping in a windowless abandoned house during winter; sleeping in an actual room with a blanket was enticing. I agreed to stay.
A week later, I ran into the woman who had given me 50 yuan. It turned out that she was the pastor’s wife. I was scared that she would scold me for lying and kick me out, but she let me stay. One afternoon, I heard members of the congregation discussing how the pastor had bad teeth but couldn’t afford dental treatment. I thought that the lady had given me the yuan because she had money to spare. In that moment, I realized how much 50 yuan was for her family.
Her generous act sparked my curiosity about God. She looked so similar to all those who had refused to give me leftover rice, yet she was different. I started to read a Bible to know what she believed. Despite my sincere desire to learn, I couldn’t understand it. The vocabulary, the concept of heaven and hell—none of these made sense to me. Still, I kept wondering about her faith.
In China, hosting a North Korean refugee is illegal, and this church had already sheltered me for more than two weeks. I couldn’t stay forever. One of the members located an elderly Korean Chinese woman living in another city who was willing to take me in. She was a devoted Christian who let me call her “Grandma.” I didn’t know how to pray, but she encouraged me to read the Bible and taught me hymns to sing. She gave me a new name: Joseph.
My first prayer to God was said in China, the night Grandma introduced me to a hymn:
Father, I stretch my hands to thee,
No other help I know;
If thou withdraw thyself from me,
Ah! Whither shall I go?
That night I prayed, God, I don’t know who you are or whether you exist as the Bible and Christians claim. But I need your help.
A few months after I moved into Grandma’s home, I met a South Korean missionary who runs an underground shelter for North Koreans. Later that year, an activist helped me relocate to the United States. I arrived in 2007 as a refugee and began attending high school in Richmond. Different obstacles overshadowed me there. I couldn’t understand a single word of my classes or classmates and I could barely keep up with the stream of cultural differences. But because I was still relatively young, I was able to learn English. I graduated in four years, and am now attending college in New York City. I attend a church in Manhattan to learn more about God and his world.
The hymn Grandma taught me put into words what my heart needed to say. I had been alone in the world. At any moment, the authorities could have arrested me and sent me back to North Korea to starve. I felt there was no one to look after me, no one who could help. What would happen if God withdrew himself from me too?
But what was God’s help if not the churches that sheltered me or the woman who gave me the 50 yuan she couldn’t spare or the elderly Christian who gave me my new name? Fleeing to China, I had lost hope in human goodness. Finding Christians there, I found that hope again. Caring for strangers, acting compassionately without expecting anything in return: That is the beauty of humankind. That is the beauty of the gospel.
Joseph Kim is the author of Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).