By Jenny Lee
On the northernmost headland of the world’s most reclusive country, North Korea, there stood young Jon Nam Kim’s home, overlooking a beautiful landscape of cliffs rising sheer from the East Sea and mountains brimming with larches, pines and pear trees.
Now thousands of miles away, his old stomping ground has become a place Kim prays for everyday and wistfully wishes to return at least once in his lifetime.
“It really was a wonderful place to live,” said Kim, who is among the 20 or so North Korean refugees resettled in a greater Chicago area that is also home to more than 63,000 South Koreans. “Not everything in my country is bad. Just the policies are.”
Under the leadership of a communist dictator, North Korea is a country of hardship and deprivation for many of its people, completely denying freedom of any kind. So it is not uncommon that many of its citizens, mostly from the border areas, seek to flee to other nations in search of a new life.
But Kim’s journey is a little bit different: What was meant to be a short trip in 1995 turned into a 13-year-long gruesome journey that led him to the U.S.
Amid frequent droughts and floods that led to a food crisis in North Korea in the early ‘90s, Kim left his hometown, Orang County in North Hamgyong province, as part of a labor force dispatched to Russia in exchange for much-needed lumber and foreign currency.
With an anticipation of returning to his family after making money, he toiled as a logger and a construction worker for four years in a “labor camp” in Russia’s eastern city of Khabarovsk.
“After working everyday for two years, all I had in my hand was barely 30 dollars,” said Kim.
“The North Korean supervisors [in Russia] were confiscating all of our wages. They earned $100,000 a year while we had less than $20 in our pockets.”
Feeling desperate to go back with, at least, money for food, Kim started working outside the base on a part-time basis, mostly digging or chopping wood in severe cold with temperatures dropping below minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. However, his absence was soon discovered by the supervisors at the camp, who began demanding bribes to keep their mouths shut.
North Korea’s secret police came in October 1999 to seize Kim and take him back to the country. By a hair’s breadth, he managed to run away, completely breaking ties with his country.
“When I heard that the police were in the next room, I ran for my life without putting on my shoes,” Kim said. “I would have been killed.”
The following nine years were times of fear and anxiety for Kim. He was a fugitive in Vladivostok with no legal status, but it was during the time that he met his devout Christian wife, who sheltered him and led him to God.
Kim said coming to the U.S. was God’s will.
“From early childhood, I had been taught the U.S. is a sworn enemy aiming to eradicate the Korean race,” said Kim. “So I never once imagined I would come to the U.S., until my wife received a divine revelation in a dream, telling us to move here and study God.”
Despite huge risks of being extradited, Kim sought help first from a Russian government organization and then from the U.S. embassy in Moscow to make a claim for refugee status. Within just a few months, he was approved by the U.S. State Department after a thorough vetting process. Kim was exempted from staying in the U.N. refugee camp, unlike the majority of North Korean refugees.
Currently, there are about 190 North Korean refugees in the U.S. Andrew Hong, president of Emancipate North Korea (ENoK), a Chicago-based non-profit organization that houses five North Korean refugees, said the low number of North Korean refugee arrivals can be attributed to the jail-like condition of the U.N. refugee camp, in which they spend at least one year to come to the U.S.
So for Kim, everything seemed to be working in his favor.
When Kim landed in Chicago with his wife and two children in 2008, World Relief Chicago, one of the largest government-funded resettlement agencies, provided him a furnished home for three months just like any other refugee, and after that, he was on his own.
“He seemed to be in his 50s, but he was actually in his 30s,” said Keum Sup Song, pastor at Palatine-based Peace Presbyterian Church, recalling the first time he met Kim at the church’s prayer service in 2010. “Although his living environment was not great, I could feel love, happiness and peace in his family.”
Kim said the best things about living in Chicago are being free and being able to study.
“In North Korea, we can’t even say what we want to say,” Kim said. “We have to think carefully before we say anything.”
Among many challenges stemming from profound changes in his life, Kim said he grappled most with language barriers and loneliness.
“We [North Korean refugees] are too busy trying to assimilate ourselves into the new culture. So we don’t usually compare our lives here with our lives in North Korea,” Kim said. “Most of us are struggling to learn English because language is what connects us with the culture.”
The 45-year-old dedicated Christian, who believes exposing himself on behalf of North Korean refugees is part of God’s plan, is an active member of the South Korean Christian community, but he rarely mingles with the larger Korean communities in Chicago.
Song said Korean residents in Chicago should open their hearts and communicate with North Korean refugees instead of providing mostly financial support.
Kim, who works at a car component company during the day and studies at a theological school in the evening, has new goals: becoming a missionary who helps North Koreans in the U.S. and abroad and visiting North Korea when the country opens its doors.
“We still love North Korea and its people because it’s our home,” Kim said.