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‘Walking Forward with Brightness’

North Korean soldiers monitor the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom in 2013. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters)

Joseph Kim and I have recorded a podcast, a Q&A, here. He works for the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. He’s an expert-in-residence. What’s he an expert in? North Korea, his native country. There is no harder-earned expertise.

He experienced the usual horrors, or many of them. He was twelve years old when his father starved to death. To his mother and sister, hellish things were happening. Joseph was out on the streets from age twelve to age fifteen — doing everything he could to stay alive.

He escaped to China by running across a frozen river. Eventually, he managed to get to the United States. He has written a memoir, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America.

In our podcast, we discuss a number of things, including current affairs: What does he make of the relationship between President Trump and Kim Jong-un? Joseph says, in essence, that democratic leaders sometimes have to deal with brutal, murderous dictators. They have to meet with evil. But they don’t have to “praise evil,” as he says.

I also ask him how he got involved with George W. Bush and the Bush Institute. Some years back, Joseph was studying business management, and had little interest in politics. But he was invited to participate in a meeting between Bush and North Korean refugees. Joseph figured he’d get a picture with the ex-president and post it on social media.

Usually, North Korean refugees are asked about life in North Korea, how they escaped, etc. These are very good questions, of course. But Bush surprised Joseph by asking him and the others, “How are you doing?” He wanted to know how the refugees were getting along in their current lives, and whether he and his people could do anything to help. Joseph found this quite moving.

Then, Bush said to him, “Joseph, what is your dream?” The young man was completely unprepared for this question. Before, his dream was to have three meals a day, but he had already achieved that. Now he was casting about for some purpose. So, he struggled to answer Bush’s question.

“I went on and on without making any point, and he was listening to me from the beginning to the end without a single interruption, and I was very touched by that.”

A photo was indeed taken of Joseph and the ex-president that day — but Joseph didn’t post it on social media. Later, Bush sent him a letter — handwritten — but Joseph didn’t post that, either. Why? In sum, because he did not want to cheapen those things. He says that Bush has treated him “like a human being” rather than as a political prop or (maybe worse) a victim.

Obviously, Joseph was not born with the name “Joseph.” His acquisition of it — in China — is a very interesting story, which he tells at the outset of our podcast (again, here). The name his father gave him is Kwang-jin, which means, “Walking forward with brightness.” That is exactly what Joseph Kim is doing, as far as I can tell. An exceptionally brave and thoughtful person.

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