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.
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.”