From North Korea refugee to U.S. citizen in New York | Our American Dream

Joseph Kim, 27, escaped North Korea 10 years ago by running across a frozen Tumen River, which borders North Korea and China.

Starving, homeless, and an orphan, he made a daring run for it despite the soldiers patrolling the North Korean side. He said he took a big chance because most people trying this end up getting caught.

Joseph was born in 1990 in Hoeryŏng a city in North Hamgyŏng province, North Korea. Happy memories of his childhood ended in 2002 when North Korea's great famine took a deadly toll on his family.

"When I was 12 years old I saw my father slowly whittle away and dying of starvation," he said. "That also led my sister and mom to leave North Korea to look for food and my sister was eventually sold to a Chinese man."

Lonely and scared, Joseph begged for food to stay alive.

"It was so hard. Can you imagine you have to go to sleep under the bridge outside every night without food?" he said. "Then at least for me was like mom or dad why did you bring me to this world?"

She said his sister is still close to his heart. Starvation and a desire to find his sister in China motivated Joseph to make the dangerous gamble.

"I just ran over the ice -- my rationale back than was what else do I have to lose?" he said. "Literally, I have nothing to lose -- all I can lose, die of gunshot -- what difference die of starvation?"

China proved to be more challenging than North Korea. Local families feared punishment from China's Communist government for helping a North Korean.

"In a sense it forced me to become a survivor," Joseph said "I had to learn to give up my personality and my dignity open up my mouth and ask 'Can I have your leftover food' to a stranger. It takes a lot of courage."

Once in China, Joseph was lucky enough to get help from a South Korean missionary who helped him get to the U.S. Embassy in China and ultimately to America.

Joseph was placed with a foster family in Richmond, Virginia, and enrolled high school. There he had to learn to speak English and understand an unfamiliar concept: "Freedom."

"There is no freedom of religion [in North Korea], there is no freedom of speech," he said. "There, basic freedoms or rights are taken away [by] the government."

The recent nuclear taunting from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un worries Joseph. But mostly he thinks about the well-being of the childhood friends he left behind in North Korea.

"It's difficult for American people to recognize that even though it's a dark place, it's motherland for so many North Koreans," Joseph said.

He is now a student studying international affairs and policy at Bard College in Dutchess County, New York. He views his good fortune as a responsibility.

"I'm very lucky but I also ask myself 'What is out there?'" Joseph said. "'Why was it me?'"

Joseph said he would love to reunite his mother and sister but he is not sure if they are alive or how to find them. He also worries doing so would put their lives in jeopardy.

In reporting this story, I learned many North Koreans living in the United States are afraid to go public as they fear the North Korean government might retaliate against family members who live in North Korea or are hiding in China.

Joseph is now a U.S. citizen. He is an author and has even given a TED Talk. He plans to become a humanitarian aid worker and help other young men like himself.

He also would like to return to North Korea one day.