A long, strange jour­ney to free­dom

In new books, Joseph Kim and other North Korean de­fec­tors are telling sto­ries of their es­cape and the chal­lenges they later faced

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ANNA FI­FIELD anna.fi­field@wash­post.com

new york — Joseph Kim is fac­ing a mo­men­tous de­ci­sion that might be fa­mil­iar to some for­tu­nate young Amer­i­cans. Should he ac­cept Bard Col­lege’s of­fer of a full ride? Or a lesser schol­ar­ship from Amer­i­can Univer­sity that would re­quire him to come up with $40,000 a year? Maybe Columbia will still come back to him with an of­fer?

But Kim, a po­lit­i­cal science ma­jor pre­par­ing to trans­fer from a com­mu­nity col­lege in Brook­lyn, is not your typ­i­cal Amer­i­can col­lege ap­pli­cant. He’s a refugee from North Korea, and, hav­ing sur­vived a dev­as­tat­ing famine and a per­ilous es­cape, he’s try­ing to make his way in a coun­try of peo­ple who, he was once taught to be­lieve, love noth­ing more than mas­sacring Kore­ans.

“I am a much hap­pier per­son than I was when I first came to this coun­try,” Kim, 25, writes in his newly re­leased memoir, “Un­der the Same Sky.” “But my jour­ney to the West and my jour­ney within the West was far stranger than I could have imag­ined.”

He had nav­i­gated his way through hunger, poverty and re­pres­sion in the world’s last bas­tion of com­mu­nism. Now, he is mak­ing his life in the epi­cen­ter of cap­i­tal­ism — New York City.

“Some­one told me that if you can sur­vive in New York City, you can sur­vive any­where,” he said over lunch re­cently at a trendy Korean fu­sion res­tau­rant in the Flat­iron Dis­trict.

Kim’s book re­counts his trans­for­ma­tion dur­ing the 1990s famine that killed at least 1 mil­lion of his com­pa­tri­ots. He started the famine as a 5-year-old who loved rice cakes and car­toons and trans­formed into a home­less teenager in a gang of “wan­der­ing swal­lows,” raggedy kids who stole hand­fuls of corn and even sewer grates to sur­vive.

He was rounded up and held at a youth de­ten­tion cen­ter. Then, fac­ing one hard­ship af­ter another upon his re­lease, he es­caped to China in 2006.

Writ­ten with au­thor Stephan Talty, “Un­der the Same Sky” is one of a string of mem­oirs by North Korean es­capees be­ing pub­lished this sum­mer. Lee Hyeon-seo re­counts her es­cape in “The Girl With Seven Names,” while Kim Eun-sun de­tails her jour­ney to South Korea in “A Thou­sand Miles to Free­dom.” Park Yeon-mi, one of the most high-pro­file re­cent es­capees, also has a memoir com­ing out in Septem­ber.

To­gether, the books add to the drum­beat of calls for more ac­tion on hu­man rights in North Korea, whose bru­tal prac­tices were out­lined in a ma­jor U.N. re­port last year.

They also rep­re­sent an un­usual con­tri­bu­tion to out­siders’ un­der­stand­ing of North Korea, the most im­pen­e­tra­ble coun­try on the planet. While al­most 28,000 es­capees live in South Korea and about 175 in the United States, re­li­able in­for­ma­tion re­mains hard to come by.

De­fec­tors’ tales have also gen­er­ated skep­ti­cism, as some have ex­ag­ger­ated their sto­ries into the ac­counts of un­fath­omable hor­rors that the world has come to ex­pect from North Korea.

In his book, Kim re­counts many aw­ful ex­pe­ri­ences in North Korea — such as the time he and his mother wolfed down a rare bowl of soup at a res­tau­rant they later dis­cover is sus­pected of butcher­ing or­phans and us­ing their flesh as meat. But his story is a fairly typ­i­cal tale of what it took to sur­vive the famine, known in North Korea as “the ar­du­ous march,” even if his jour­ney to the United States is not.

Af­ter es­cap­ing across the frozen river into China in 2006, he was even­tu­ally taken in by lo­cal Chris­tians. Lib­erty in North Korea, a Cal­i­for­nia-based non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps es­capees, of­fered Kim the op­por­tu­nity to move to the United States. There, af­ter years of sub­sist­ing on weed soup and roasted grasshop­pers, Kim, at 16, found him­self hun­gry in the rich­est coun­try on the planet.

He was placed with a foster fam­ily in Rich­mond. To make their bud­get stretch, he wrote, the par­ents strictly mon­i­tored food, lock­ing the pantry and keep­ing the fridge empty. Kim some­times raided the un­locked condi­ment stash and guz­zled ketchup to stave off hunger.

Af­ter he told his case worker, he said, he was moved to another home with a sin­gle mother who im­me­di­ately took him to the fridge and told him he could eat what­ever, when­ever.

Still, the ad­just­ment was tough. Kim’s English was poor, and he’d missed years of school in North Korea. But he even­tu­ally made the dean’s list and adopted typ­i­cal teenage fads — ear­rings and dyed hair — along the way.

At 21, hav­ing aged out of the foster care sys­tem, he de­cided to move to New York.

“I was scared. I knew that I could sur­vive in North Korea, but in Amer­ica, I felt con­fused. I didn’t know the sys­tem, and I didn’t know if I could sur­vive with­out gov­ern­ment sup­port,” Kim said over lunch.

He shared an apart­ment in Brook­lyn with dodgy char­ac­ters, bused ta­bles and bagged gro­ceries, and en­rolled in com­mu­nity col­lege. He went back to eat­ing one meal a day — of­ten scrap­ing to­gether change for a $4.50 Chi­nese buf­fet — and sleep­ing only a cou­ple of hours each night. He said he some­times found him­self in tears as he walked in the park.

“I never thought about giv­ing up in Amer­ica,” he said. “I have a goal, a dream. This was all part of the process.”

His dream is to find his sis­ter, Bong Sook, with whom he’s had no con­tact since the day she left North Korea with their mother years be­fore his own de­par­ture. He sus­pects she was sold to a Chi­nese man, like many young North Korean women.

Af­ter 2 1/2 years at com­mu­nity col­lege, he’s now liv­ing in aKorean neigh­bor­hood in New Jersey, at­tend­ing a Korean church in New York and get­ting ready to trans­fer to a univer­sity to com­plete his de­gree. The mid­dle school dropout has also been teach­ing math at a Korean cram school.

But he has not found Bong Sook. He has con­tacted bro­kers in the bor­der re­gion and wrote the book with his sis­ter in mind— the ti­tle refers to his hope that they at least have the stars and moon in com­mon — but has found no trace of her. He doesn’t even have a photo of her.

“Un­til she left, I didn’t know how much I loved her,” he said. “So I thought writ­ing this book would be one way to thank her for her sac­ri­fice.”

“I never thought about giv­ing up in Amer­ica. I have a goal, a dream. This was all part of the process.”

Joseph Kim, who es­caped from North Korea in 2006


Joseph Kim, 25, walks a friend’s dog in­Hart­ford, Conn. Kim fled North Korea as a teenager and has writ­ten a book about his ex­pe­ri­ences.

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