The Journey of Joseph — A Teen North Korean Refugee

Editor’s Note: This post comes to us from the wonderful folks at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organization providing protection and aid to North Korean refugees. Read the incredible story of Joseph — a refugee, who had been hiding in China before his rescue. And be sure to check back over the course of the next week, because we’ll be featuring more personal stories of triumph, similar to Joseph’s.

Joseph is a North Korean refugee who was resettled in the US in 2007 after LiNK, or Liberty in North Korea, rescued him from hiding in China. He is now a high school senior ranked among the top of his class and interned at LiNK’s headquarters office in California last summer to spread awareness of the North Korea crisis and to learn about youth advocacy. Below is his story of escape, survival and eventually freedom.

I was born into a family of farmers. When I was 13, my father passed away from starvation. My sister then crossed over the border to China to earn money and find food, but she never returned. Soon after, my mother also disappeared and I became an orphan. I couldn’t understand why this happened to me. My dad passed away because of food, because of one piece of bread, one bowl of rice. 

To survive in North Korea, I begged for food and worked in coal mines seven days a week for 16 hours a day. It took me two hours to get to work. Because I didn’t get food or money but lumps of coal for payment, the workers at the mines were kind to me out of pity. Even with these hardships, I found hope in one thing. When you are homeless, you don’t get to shower too often. But I got a chance to wash myself, and it gave me a warm hope to live.

After two years of living by myself in North Korea, I decided to escape and cross into China through the Tumen River because I was hungry. I also wanted to find my sister. I knew that many people tried to cross at night, so I decided to go during the day when the river guards weren’t watching as closely. If the guards had caught me, I would have died or gone to jail. But in my mind, starving, dying, or getting caught and dying were the same thing. After I successfully crossed the border, I survived in China by doing housework for a grandmother in return for food and shelter. In 2006, after seven months in China, an activist who knew the grandmother asked me if I wanted to go to America. I said yes, and he led me to LiNK’s shelter. One of my happiest moments was being resettled in the US after waiting two months in the shelter and four months in the US embassy. 

When I was in North Korea, I was really quiet and always sighing and wondered why I should work for other people. But now, working for the North Korean people at LiNK makes me the happiest. I am also happy when I play soccer and go snowboarding, and when I am in California, I want to try to surf. 

My goals are to work toward liberty in North Korea, help other North Koreans and study political science at Yale or Harvard, not to be Superman but to keep my promise to my father to study hard and be a kind person. Though my father, mother and older sister are the most important people in my life, I also now have a family at LiNK. I also don’t fear anymore because I know I can find a solution if I think about the situation for a moment. 

One thing I ask is that we pay attention to the people of North Korea because the worst thing we can do is ignore. We need to respect each other to make the world a better place, and I want to be treated like a regular person in an honest and authentic way.

In North Korea, I thought I could never go somewhere like the United States because I wasn’t rich, smart or handsome. But here, I’ve found a place where not just the rich, smart and handsome can change the world.  

Watch Joseph’s story: 




LiNK, or Liberty in North Korea, is the only organization in North America devoted to the North Korean humanitarian and refugee crisis. LiNK provides protection and aid to North Korean refugees hiding in China and, utilizing a modern-day underground railroad through Southeast Asia, rescues refugees and helps them to reach freedom. LiNK’s global grassroots movement seeks to raise awareness of this crisis and provides a way for the international community to take part in bringing about effective change.


Learn more about LiNK’s work.  


photo credit: LiNK


Andrea M.
Andrea M7 years ago

You are a very inspiring young man, Joseph!

Kathy Javens
Kathy Javens7 years ago

To Joseph, IYou have been through so much already,I know this has given you strength. I wish only the best for you and hope you find your sister or any other family you may have. Prayers to all.....Kathy J

Gaby Micallef-trigona

Dear Joseh,
God bless you always and all ways. May your future be brighter...and maybe one day you and your sister will be reunited. I shall prary hard. Sometimes what seemed impossible does happen! As you said HOPE is the ssecret. Keep it alive.

Belle F.
Belle F.7 years ago

This is such a heart-warming story - it makes one believe that there is truly hope in this messed up world of ours. I hope Joseph can play soccor forever, and maybe, one day, freely in North Korea with others of his race. Hope really is a beautiful thing... it's not like 'faith' or anything, it has no religious connotations or relations to God. Hope is just hope. Anyone from any race or any age can have it, and without it, we barely live. Hmmm... Hope must be the most multicultural word there is. In anycase, there is hope for any country going through tough times. May Joseph live in peace and harmony with a soccor ball at his feet.

Dia Bryan
Dia Bryan7 years ago

i remember seeing a video in my journalism class... watch at around 2:15, you can obviously tell these children fear for their lives. this is a tragedy.

patrica and edw jones

What a wonderful story - am so happy for this boy. He is truly a kind caring soul. May he have a happy fulfilled life.

patrica and edw jones

What a wonderful story - am so happy for this boy. He is truly a kind caring soul. May he have a happy fulfilled life.

Nellie K A.
Nellie K Adaba7 years ago

Great news for this refugee and other refugees whose lives were saved.

kasaija n.
kasaija n.7 years ago

your free for a reason. God has a roll for you. you have to save your sisters and brothers at home. some day! start now you will succeed the lord is on your side.

kaisuorvokki m.
kaisuorvokki m7 years ago

Thank God some people have escaped that Hell on Earth! Doesn´t Nazi regimes taught ANYTHING about concentration camps?