When Yale Divinity School Professor Kim Hyun Sik was 15-years-old and living in North Korea, he listened closely to his dying mother’s last wish — that young Kim grow up to be a minister.
Fifty-six years later, Kim told approximately 25 Yale students about his experiences as a North Korean defector at a speech sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center Tuesday. Kim described through a translator his childhood, his experience fighting in the Korean War, and life under former Korean leader Kim Il Sung, Korea’s first Communist leader.
Kim said he decided to leave his homeland in 1993. With help from the South Korean CIA as well as the Russian Mafia, Kim defected and moved to Seoul, South Korea, away from Sung.
“In North Korea, [Sung] is like God,” Kim said. “North Korea believes that what Sung did was greater than what Jesus did.”
Despite the tight control Sung had on the nation, Kim called him “a warm-hearted man.”
But Kim said Sung’s intentions were misinformed.
“It is sad [Sung] was not educated in America because otherwise Korea would be a thriving nation” Kim said.
Because Kim was a tutor for Sung’s wife for 20 years and one of the two most eminent professors in South Korea, he was given freedom to travel. He was able to go to Seoul, and with help from the South Korean CIA, Kim found a way to escape the North Korean government.
But defecting proved difficult because, according to John Ahn DIV ’05, seven of Kim’s former students had been forced to sign a waiver that they would surrender their lives if their teacher did not return.
The Russian Mafia planted a body as a decoy, quelling suspicions that Kim was still alive and therefore saving the lives of the students. To this day, Ahn said, many members of the North Korean government still think that Kim is dead.
Kim said when he arrived in South Korea, he was pleasantly surprised.
“I had always been told that South Korea was hell,” Kim said. “But when I came, it was like heaven.”
Kim moved from South Korea to the United States when he was offered a job in New Orleans making a Korean translation of the Bible. Kim said all the Bible stories had to be renamed so the books could be shipped to North Korea.
The Yale Divinity School obtained a copy of Kim’s translation, called “Myths of Israel,” and invited him to teach for a year. Kim began teaching last month, and is currently working on several books, including an autobiography.
Students who attended the lecture said it was very informative.
“So many people don’t know what’s going on in North Korea,” Hydie Kim ’06 said. “Things like this are never taught in classrooms.”
Jason Choi ’04 said he was intrigued by the lecture.
“I think there are a lack of avenues to learn about life in North Korea,” Choi said, “It’s great that Professor Kim can share his experience.”
Kim said that he will try to raise awareness about what is going on in North Korea during his time at Yale.
“I want to let people know that it’s great in the U.S.” Kim said. “It is my biggest hope that someday North Korea will be like the U.S.”