In a rare university appearance, a North Korean refugee now practicing as a minister in the United States told the story of his escape from the dictatorial regime of communist leader Kim Jong-il.
Before an audience of 70, the refugee, Yong Kim, recounted his experiences in a North Korean political prison camp and his flight to America. The Wednedsay talk in Linsley-Chittenden Hall also featured remarks from Se-Jin Seo and Timothy Lee, director and co-director respectively, of refugee activist group Agency for International Migrant Support Korea, which provides aid to North Korean refugees.
Kim opened the session by telling audience members the story of when he first realized the North Korean state had been lying to him.
“For my whole life, I believed that I was an orphan.” Kim said, through an interpreter.
Kim’s adoptive parents told him his biological parents were killed by Americans in the war, he said, which fostered in Kim an early hatred toward America. After completing college and serving in the military, Kim became a prominent North Korean government official. It was then that Kim accidentally learned the truth of his background: His father had been a spy for the United States during the Korean War. His father was subsequently executed by North Korean soldiers when the secret was discovered.
Kim was arrested in May 1993 after his background was revealed, and placed in political prison camps where he was interrogated, starved and tortured.
Given that there was no hope of release from such camps, Kim said, he reasoned that he might as well try to escape — if captured, he would meet the same fate as he would in the camp: death.
Kim escaped to China, he said, where Christian missionaries took care of him and helped him flee to Mongolia and, eventually, to South Korea. After fleeing North Korea, Kim converted to Christianity. He said he was curious about America because his father worked for the U.S. government, and so Kim came to America and became a pastor — the first North Korean pastor in the U.S.
Kim said the government minimizes civil disobedience by restricting religious freedom and silencing dissent by consigning opposition voices to concentration camps in North Korea. Kim said there were 30,000 people in his camp, and estimated some 360,000 were imprisoned nationwide at the time.
Lee, the co-director of AIMS Korea, spoke about how the nonprofit provides social services to help refugees assimilate into new communities.
Adam George ’12 said he acquired a new perspective on the North Korean regime through Kim’s discussion.
“It was interesting to learn about the educational standards in North Korea,” George said. “For example, Yong Kim said that a university education in North Korea is equal to third grade in America.”
Benjamin Daus-Haberle ’12 said the American government needs to “wake up” to the realities of North Korea, and added that Yale students sometimes failed to grasp the conditions citizens face in the country.
“There’s a lot of social activism on campus, but this is the first time I’ve heard much about just how serious conditions were,” Daus-Haberle said. “Frankly, sometimes I think that people on campus need a reality check.”
Kim was born in 1950 in the Hwanghae Province of North Korea.