Photo courtesy of Joseph Kim

This is the North Korean story we never hear.

When Americans think of Joseph Kim’s homeland, words like “dictator,” and “authoritarian” and “political conflict” come to mind. But the 24-year-old American citizen and soon-to-be American University college student says that when Americans think of the country he fled in 2006, he wishes we would recall not just its politics, but the humanity of its people.

“Everyone in the West talks about the oppressive, invasive government of North Korea, but what I experienced then was more frightening to a child: a complete absence of authority of any kind,” Kim writes of a chaotic moment when desperate migrants tried to board a train to find food.

“These are people who have hopes and dreams too for a better life,” Kim says in an interview. His new memoir, “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America,” starts to tell that untold story.

It’s hard to believe what Joseph Kim, then Kwang Jin, endured in the late-1990s and early 2000s, while here in America we were living through a tech boom, blasting songs from the Spice Girls and soaking in episodes of American Idol. But after the Great Famine hit in 1994, Kim, who was only four at the time, was left to spend most of his childhood living in near-starvation.

“Hunger is humiliation. But hunger is also evil,” he writes after fantasizing about stealing food from a baby. “The weaker we grew, the less terrifying death seemed,” he explains in the book.

[More inspiration: The surprisingly simple way Utah solved chronic homelessness and saved millions]

It’s truly remarkable that Kim was able to live, surviving not through one particular act of heroism or generosity, but through a thousand small triumphs: a handful of stolen kernels of corn, a few calories from weed soup, the scraps of a meal left behind from a traveler. At points his belly swelled from hunger; at others his eyes bulged from starvation. Through years spent begging, stealing, hustling and trading, Kim found a way to survive, although many others did not. His father did not make it. 

Kim’s devoted father, once a government official, died of starvation when Joseph was 13. His mother and sister, who would sneak him food, ultimately fled to China; they have not been heard from in 10 years. Now an American citizen and living in Brooklyn, Kim says in an interview that when he wonders why he survived, he thinks of the affection his family always showed him; love that gave him the hope to carry on.

“My definition of hope is not something philosophical or deep,” Kim explains. “To me, hope is what kept me going and what still keeps me going.”

“What I mean by hope can also mean resilience or ‘don’t give up.’ For example, when I was homeless, I was digging through trash cans to look for food, but because there were so many other homeless kids doing the same thing, it was really difficult for me to tell myself I’d have to go to the next trash can, too. I knew that even to get to the next one, there is a probability that there wouldn’t be anything. But I had to keep myself believing that there was hope in the next one. That was the only option that I had.”

Kim says that he was a more positive person than other hungry, homeless youth, because he had the experience of being deeply loved by his parents. “I was a more optimistic person having the knowledge of being loved.”

Another friend, only six or seven-years-old at the time, Kim says, lacked that knowledge. “His mom would say ‘Wait 10 minutes,’ and that became an hour and another hour. It was so scary for him,” Kim explains. Unlike his parents’ loyalty, his friend’s unreliable parents caused a “bitterness” that “ate my friend away slowly.”

“For me, I always knew that I was loved by my parents and I experienced the happiness of being loved,” he says “That’s probably where my strength comes from.”

His memoir might focus on some of the bleakest moments in his childhood, in one of the most isolated places on earth, but Kim says his view of hope is no less relevant today. Whatever gives you hope to carry on, “you have to find it for your own self. ”

“Having hope is something you have to make yourself, even today in the United States,” he says. That hope can drive students to get straight A’s, or push workers attain enough economic stability to be able to spend more time with their families. Whatever that force that pushes you onward, to dream, to imagine that more is possible for yourself and others, that, he says, is hope. He wants more Americans to cultivate that sense of hope in themselves, and to work to bring it to others.

That’s just what he’s now trying to do.

Kim dreams of a life working for non-profits and one day going back to North Korea to rebuild the country after the regime falls. But mostly, he wishes to one day locate his sister, Bong Sook, who he believes was sold into marriage in China.

Kim explains that the American Independence Day gives him hope, too.

“I know what it means to achieve independence. The 4th of July is not just a meaningful day for Americans but also it gives me hope for North Korea as well. I hope that we can celebrate a similar day one day soon in North Korea.”


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