If such a thing as a normal childhood can be had in North Korea, Joseph Kim had it. He lived with his father, mother and older sister in Hoeryong, a city that benefits from being the birthplace of Kim Il-sung’s first wife.
There, young families had normal goods and services: a grocery store, a barber shop, an ice-cream parlor. At the end of each day, the neighborhood children would gather around the television and gorge themselves on popcorn and candy.
What Kim’s family did not know was that Hoeryong was, and remains, home to a maximum-security concentration camp, one of six the country is known to run.
As he writes in his new memoir, “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Kim and his family believed that they wanted for nothing.
“We were all alike,” he writes, “one big North Korean family, or so it seemed to me.”
The great famine
When Kim was nearly 4 years old, his father, a respected member of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was so successful that he was able to build a house for his young family. It was 1994.
Kim was enrolled in kindergarten, which children attend for two years. There, he learned about the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and the importance of constant, daily worship. Every North Korean was to have a framed picture of Kim Il-sung and his wife in their homes.
“You could be sent to a prison camp for allowing dirt to gather on Kim Il-sung’s portrait, or for putting it behind cracked glass,” Kim writes. The first thing his father did every morning was to carefully clean those frames.
The children also learned about America, mainly through illustrations. Teachers showed their students drawings of American soldiers spearing pregnant North Korean women with bayonets and marching them into gas chambers.
“I held my breath,” Kim writes, “as the teachers explained that Americans had come to our country to massacre Koreans for no other reason than they liked to . . . the only people who stopped the Americans from coming to my country, our teachers said, were Kim Il-sung and the soldiers of North Korea.”
On July 8 of that year, Kim Il-sung died, and not long after — unbeknownst to North Korea’s citizens — Russia stopped subsidizing the nation with food and fertilizer. Then, in 1995, biblical rains and flooding washed away what few crops grew. What little there was of the electrical grid went out.
The nation plunged into a great famine. Within weeks, Kim’s father was unable to feed his family, and his mother was ripping up any plant she could find, edible or not, and force-feeding it to Kim and his sister.
“Your body knows when it’s eating something that’s not food,” he writes. “Your belly is temporarily full, but you can tell no nutrients are flowing to your limbs, that there’s no fat to make your taste buds happy.”
The deprivation was sudden and severe. A next-door neighbor’s grandfather died of starvation. His parents began fighting brutally over how to get food; his father refused to engage in bribes or the black market, believing such things morally wrong. His mother was in agony: “You’re sacrificing your own children!”
She sold her wedding dress to buy what little food was available. “We were dying,” Kim writes. “Our eyeballs pushed from their sockets, or so it seemed. Really, our faces were just growing leaner. We had little energy for playing or reading books or anything else.”
By spring 1996, the family’s lone daily meal was a handful of weeds, but some days, they only had tiny sips of water.
Kim’s mother went to stay with her own parents. His father decided their best hope was with his brother, who lived near Pyongyang and was a major in the Korean People’s Army.
They traveled by train, and a journey that should have taken less than 10 hours took them three weeks, each car stuffed with the starving and unwashed, no room for anyone to move.
“People lay in the aisles of the cars, too weak to lift their heads for morsels of food; others were taken out to the fields on either side of the railbed and left to die,” Kim writes. “As we passed stations, I saw corpses piled up outside them, people who’d been waiting and had expired in the heat.”
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