Seong Joon Cho / Bloomberg via Getty Images file
In March, a study by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found 45 percent of North Korean defectors have faced discrimination since coming here,
Kim’s first experience of this was at school.
“My classmates in South Korea didn’t want to include me in teamwork projects because they thought I really lacked understanding of technology, how to write, and the knowledge of classics and history,” he says. “North Korea’s education is not modernized and many things are based around propaganda to make sure people worship the Kim family.”
He said this made him angry, but added: “It actually motivated me to go further and try to become more like what South Koreans expected.”
When it came to finding a job, his resume would be accepted time and again, but he claims that when it came to the interview stage employees would reject him when they learned he was North Korean.
“Seventy companies I applied to, all rejected. Seven-zero, all at the interview level,” he says. “You have interviewers saying, ‘Explain about your high school and middle-school life,’ but we don’t have that kind of experience in North Korea. So you have to say, ‘I come from North Korea and I want to contribute to your company.’ At that level, interviewers are very confused.”
Kim has been left frustrated and disappointed by his treatment in South Korea but it would be inaccurate to say his time in the country has been all bad.
In 2015, after completing his undergraduate studies, he won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, a New York-based grant-making organization, to do a master’s degree in unification studies at a South Korean university.
And he has gone from hating the U.S. to actually going there in person.
“When I was little, every book, every curriculum, they always mentioned that America is the enemy,” he says. “When I was little I dreamed about fighting Americans.”
But in 2009, he attended a school run by Youth With a Mission, a Texas-based Christian missionary organization.
“It broadened my perspective, when I met my American friends, and made me think differently, to see that the world is global,” he says.
His affinity with the U.S. hasn’t stopped there. In August he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study a Ph.D. in the U.S. starting next year.
Alexander Smith / NBC News
“I haven’t chosen a university but I would like to go to the University of Pennsylvania or Columbia University,” he says. “But these are really good schools, these are in the Ivy League, and I have to meet the requirements of these schools.”
His love for the U.S. doesn’t extend to Donald Trump, however, especially after the president threatened
during a speech last month to “totally destroy” North Korea.
“It makes me angry when he says that,” Kim says, his polite voice raising. “There are many, many ways to approach North Korean problems. Why only say, ‘Destroy’? I mean, there’s a lot of options you can choose.”
Kim says he wants Trump — and the American public in general — to see beyond the North Korean regime and realize most of the country’s 25 million people are blameless civilians. Any war on the Korean peninsula would almost certainly mean a huge loss of life on both sides of the border, and plenty of Kim’s friends and relatives are still stuck inside the North.
“The people, they’re really kind and just… normal,” he says. “They try every day to only focus on their life. That’s all.”