North Korea has been cut off from the rest of the world for nearly 70 years and few people outside of its borders – especially in the West – have a realistic picture of how life really goes on. Yes, we know it’s a horrible place, essentially a giant concentration camp, but how do North Koreans live their lives? Joseph Kim’s memoir, with contributions from Stephan Talty, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015) helps to paint a picture of the closed off nation and remind us what we should know – that North Koreans are all too human with real hopes, dreams, and struggles. Most importantly, the book paints a vivid picture of life inside North Korea that, despite the accounts of suffering, by turns surprises and enlightens.
Under the Same Sky could easily be broken into three parts: Joseph Kim’s life before the famine that ravaged North Korea in the 1990s; how Kim survived during the famine; and his life after escaping from North Korea. The book is episodic, with each chapter telling one particular story from Kim’s life. Within this format, at just short of 300 pages, and given the compelling themes in many chapters, it’s a quick read and is often hard to put down. The narrative spans little more than a decade, starting when Kim is four or so, and ending when he’s an older teenager. He does talk about his new life in America, but it’s not the focus. The majority of the action takes place during the North Korean famine, but an early section in the book paints the idyllic picture that life wasn’t always so bad in this nation, at least not when seen through the eyes of a young child.
The story starts with Kim as a content little boy; he’s the youngest of two, the only son and therefore the most loved child. His father carves wood to make him elaborate toy guns and these put Kim at the top of the toddler social hierarchy. He describes his family’s initial wealth – they have plenty of material possessions and they own a free-standing house in the country. His mother would prepare delicious meals for the family and he always received numerous gifts on his birthday. Kim watched his favorite TV shows about spies, played with his friends outside, and loved candy. It sounds so normal, American even. Then the famine hit. We don’t know the exact number, but it’s estimated that this famine killed over a million people. Kim’s mother stopped making his favorite dish, a type of corn pancake, and eventually the family began scavenging for any food they could find, often boiling soybean stalks that were bitter and even painful to eat. He no longer went out and played with his friends. Without food, the only thing Kim had energy to do was lie on his sleeping mat and doze in and out of consciousness. His family eventually had to sell their house and relied on the support of wealthier relatives, often going from city to city, staying with a relative until they were kicked out.
It gets worse as Kim enters his teen years. His family fell apart. He lost one parent to prison, the other to death, and his sister Bong Sook was sold to Chinese men for a small amount of cash.
Kim spent years living on streets, becoming a pick pocket and a beggar. He worked in a dangerous coal mine. He worked without pay for a relative and began to steal from him and eventually joined a street gang. Kim slept on hot ashes thrown out of houses to stay warm at night and broke into houses to steal food. He spent several months in a youth prison camp where he heard female inmates being raped each night. The brutality touched him personally as he watched older boys beat younger ones into total submission and received several beatings himself until he won a fight and was promoted to guard other inmates. During the famine and especially while Kim was on his own, his life was defined by one word: “survival.” During an interview with NPR, Kim says this about being homeless during the great famine:
In order to survive as a homeless, probably one of the first things that you have to do is to give up your human dignity because if you try to keep yourself a human being and try to preserve your rights and right to be treated, you’re not going to be able to ask for food. I mean it’s really humiliating. You also have to cross the line where you have to stop worrying about or thinking about the morality. I was taught in school don’t steal it but if I don’t steal it, I can’t survive.
There are many heartbreaking anecdotes, facts, and images in this story, but none quite like Kim’s relationship with Bong Sook. The older sister doted on her baby brother, sacrificed her food to him, and did everything within her power to keep him happy. Throughout the first two sections of the book, Kim constantly expresses regret that he did not appreciate his sister more. He never told her what she meant to him and he never bothered to ask her what she really wanted in life. Kim finishes most stories about his sister with a reference to her fate in China today, a mystery, and very likely an unhappy one. The title of the memoir is for his sister. Though Bong Sook is somewhere in China and Kim lives in America, they’re united under the same sky and the same stars. He writes, “Although we are physically separated and living apart, our souls are, in a way, still living in this same world—under the same sky.” This is a sad reality and all too common for many defectors with families still trapped in North Korea.
When he was 15 years old, Kim was wandering through North Korea with no hope left: no more relatives who would support him, no work, and no shelter. He decided, almost on a whim, that he would attempt to escape into China. During one of his odd jobs in North Korea, he met an ex-convict who told Kim, “If you find yourself outside North Korea, look for a Christian.” Christians, the ex-con explained, don’t ask for anything in return and will help with food, shelter, and even offer money. Kim assumed that Christians are all millionaires who routinely helped North Koreans because they all have an excess of wealth. He spent awhile in America before he realized that this wasn’t the case. Thanks to a Christian Chinese woman he called “grandma,” and the work of various other Christian charities, and the effort of the nonprofit Liberty in North Korea, Joseph Kim eluded authorities and was able to achieve the American dream.
He’s said that if readers only take away one thing from his story, it’s this:
After spending time in China and seeing movies about South Korea, I wonder why my country is so poor and why we had to suffer so much.
Even at this moment, the North Korean people are still fighting to survive, they have hope and they have not given up on life or the possibility of a better future. But hope by itself is not enough. I believe that with the attention of the international community, with your support, we can also make their hope of a better future into reality.
I know that North Korea is a difficult issue and I definitely don’t have the answers, but please don’t forget our stories.
If you want to learn more about what life was like in North Korea during one of the worst famines in recent memory or if you simply want to read an inspirational memoir about a little boy who went from homeless beggar to college student and TED talker, I highly recommend Under the Same Sky. You can read an excerpt of the book at NPR.org.