Many of us think of North Korea as a nation of automatons, blindly following Dear Leader over the cliff. If nothing else, Joseph Kim’s memoir of his harrowing childhood during the famine that devastated North Korea in the 1990s will complicate that view.
The Great Famine killed as much as 10 percent of the country’s population. Undoubtedly the central government owns responsibility for this. But instead of “an oppressive, invasive government,” Kim, a young boy living in a small city far from Pyongyang, experienced “something more frightening to a child: a complete absence of authority of any kind.”
In this far-flung, slow-moving chaos, Kim sees his immediate family split asunder and his extended family collapse. “Kinship melted away in the face of hunger,” he writes. And from the fields bordering their home, Kim observes that first the frogs, then the grasshoppers and finally the grass itself begins to disappear. This is a devastating chronicle of the grinding progress of starvation.
But what makes Under the Same Sky so poignant is that the family’s decline is not a straight slide to hell. At one point Kim’s father rallies, finds work, and the family gets a television, which gives them social power.
Of course, this upturn in fortune does not last. The family falls further into poverty and disarray. Essentially orphaned and now a feral child, Kim survives by joining a gang and developing a talent for thievery, while at the same time struggling to maintain some element of his humanity.
Finally at 15, Kim makes the desperate decision to cross a frozen river into China. It is an act of madness that somehow works. Now in his mid-20s living in New York City, Kim is building a new life. It’s the life of a survivor, filled with determination and deep regret.