Author Mike Kim Urges Students to Help Others
“What is the topic you’re going to engage in to help others?” Mike Kim asked a packed Wanamaker Hall last week. Knowing the sacrifices this year’s Ernie and Lucha Vogel Moral Courage Lecturer had made, no one took the question lightly.
In 2003 Kim left behind a successful financial planning business, sold everything he had, and moved to the North Korea/China border to help those escaping the oppressive North Korean regime.
A modern-day underground railroad
Operating undercover as a student of North Korean taekwondo, Kim conducted operations along a 6,000-mile, modern-day underground railroad running from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Bangkok, Thailand. The founder of Crossing Borders, a nonprofit that helps refugees, Kim successfully led hundreds to safety in Southeast Asia. In order to accomplish this, he made contact with diplomats, former drug enforcement officers, police, border personnel, and others to establish food sources, safe houses, and transportation assistance. Although feeding or sheltering North Koreans could have led to imprisonment, Kim persevered through interrogation, house arrest, and even being held at gunpoint.
One of the many harrowing examples Kim shared occurred early in his tenure in China. After accompanying four North Korean teenagers by train to Shanghai, he guided them into the British consulate to attain amnesty. Earlier he had cased the facility for cameras and possible weak links in security and had prepared the teens for the risk, which included death if they were captured by the authorities.
“The group of 16- to 18-year-olds assured me they wanted to endure the risk rather than not try at all,” Kim said. As it turned out, Kim himself fled the consulate just as the group freed themselves from the Chinese guards, broke through a gated area, and stood in the area of the consulate considered to be British soil. Kim later reunited with the group in Seoul, South Korea, to celebrate their newfound freedom.
Sounding an alarm
Seeking ways to bring greater attention to the plight of refugees, Kim returned to the United States in 2006 and spent the next year writing Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country. Numerous media organizations have interviewed him, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, Fox News, and BBC, and he was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Kim is currently working with a film producer to develop the story into a feature film. He has also assisted the State Department, giving talks to foreign service officers-in-training.
Even in the U.S., however, Kim shoulders risk as he shares his story, describing himself as a “marked man” in North Korea. “I learned later that the North Korean Taekwondo Association is known to locate those who’ve helped refugees,” he explained, “and there are even accounts of assassinations. But I’ve always felt a higher power guiding and protecting me.”
“When you step outside yourself the most and think of yourself the least is when you actually find yourself,” Kim told students. “I have found a great sense of fulfillment and purpose in my life by doing this work.”
Kim’s message resonated for junior Cameron Douglas. “I’m grateful to Principia for bringing Kim to campus,” he commented. “His talk brought attention to a part of the world we don’t always hear about and helped us understand these important issues.”