A North Korean woman’s harrowing memoir of escape and exile, A Thousand Miles to Freedom,
Harrowing realities of fleeing regime laid bare in powerful tale
Under the protective gazes of “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il in their wall portraits, an 11-year-old North Korean girl was slowly starving to death.
Eunsun Kim’s father had died of starvation a month earlier, her grandparents before that. To buy food, the family had sold almost all their furniture — but not, of course, those framed portraits, mandatory in every household, the selling of which is a sacrilege punishable by death. Kim was alone in the cold, empty apartment, her mother and older sister having gone to a nearby town to find food. After six days, the hunger-racked girl took a small notebook and pencil and proceeded to write her last will and testament.
Just in time, Kim’s mother and sister returned, with no food but with a fierce will to survive. Desperate, the mother took the portraits off the wall, burned the photos of the leaders and sold the wooden frames. The family could now buy a meal and, with new-found strength, began to plan how to flee their “socialist paradise.”
It sounds like a novel, but A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea is a memoir of Kim’s ensu- ing journey through China and Mongolia to the eventual haven of South Korea.
Over those nine harrowing years, from 1997 to 2006, Kim, her mother and her sister endured unimaginable adversity. They stole food. They slept rough. Hiding from armed border guards, they crossed into China at night by wading across the icy Tumen River. They were sold by human traffickers to an abusive peasant farmer, necessitating another escape. They bought fake ID, paid a small fortune to smugglers, survived a labour camp. They crossed the Gobi Desert on foot.
Like most escape memoirs, A Thousand Miles to Freedom is a real-life thriller with a strong linear narrative drive. But it also offers insights into the reality of life in North Korea, building on the growing trickle of information coming out of that most secretive of countries.
Kim recounts the oppression that begins in childhood, including her primary school’s compulsory field trips to public executions. She depicts the horrors of the 1990s famine, caused by economic mismanagement and the collapse of Soviet support, and describes the appalling conditions she experienced on crowded intercity trains, where she had to take her own tin can to use as a toilet.
In a country where it’s illegal to make phone calls abroad or exchange mail with foreigners and where only the highestranking members of the ruling party have Internet access, a ruthless dynasty can create what amounts to a massive cult of propaganda, Kim writes.
“For the 25 million people who live there, North Korea has become a true hell on earth, forgotten by the rest of the world.” The people don’t revolt, because “they don’t know how to form their own opinions and they don’t fully understand the true scope of their misfortune.”
Eunsun Kim (a pseudonym, to protect relatives still living in North Korea) is now 28, pursuing a master’s degree in Seoul and working for a human-rights NGO. A Thousand Miles to Freedom will surely raise awareness, despite writing that’s less than literary. The book contains some pedestrian prose and rather clunky transitions, not surprising from someone who was out of school for many years. But I would have expected better from Kim’s co-author, Asia-based French journalist Sébastien Falletti, or her translator, David Tian. (A French edition came out in 2012.) At times this slender book cries out for more detail, more colour.
Still, the sheer power of Kim’s story prevails. And her confessions of some seemingly contrary behaviours — an exhausted sadness, not joy, when she finally reaches freedom; an abiding love of childhood songs from the same totalitarian regime where she almost perished — are disturbingly, refreshingly, candid. Marcia Kaye (marciakaye.com) is a journalist and author who recently returned from a trip to China.