Kim was born in North Korea and given the name Kwang Jin, which means “moving forward with brightness.” He and his older sister Bong Sook lived modestly but comfortably with their mother and their father, who held a minor government job. Despite his mother’s depression, Kim found joy in the compassion he received from Bong Sook and the spirit of hope that his father exuded.
Yet it was that hopefulness that played a role in his downfall in the troubles that were to come. As Kim writes in his Christopher Award-winning memoir “Under the Same Sky,” “Men like my father were, I think, especially vulnerable to the storms that awaited us. It’s impossible to confirm that such men died at higher rates than cynical or skeptical types…but I believe they shared a dark fate. Their simple belief in life must have cost them dearly.”
The aforementioned storms arose in the mid-1990s when famine slowly struck North Korea. The average citizen had no warning it was coming because there “wasn’t any Internet or television news or ringing telephones to warn that bad things were headed our way…What we didn’t know then was that Russia had stopped sending North Korea food and fertilizer, the tons of it that had helped sustain the country for many years. The Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991. The Russia that emerged in its wake was cash poor and no longer inclined to prop up the few remaining Communist regimes, such as Cuba and North Korea…Corruption and a broken economic system doomed all their [the government’s] efforts. There were no private markets where one could buy rice and tofu; the government was the only source of food. And each month it distributed less and less.”
While family members who were better off initially helped Kim and his parents and sister, the situation eventually turned so bad that everyone just started looking out for themselves. As Kim writes, “In North Korea, there was no concept of doing things for other people out of kindness. Unconditional love was not something I was familiar with.”
At age 12, Kim saw his father die of starvation. And as he told me during a “Christopher Closeup” interview, “My sister went to China to try to earn some money and find food, but she couldn’t find any. As a result, she was sold to a Chinese man. My mom later was sent to prison camp in North Korea. That led me to become homeless.”
Life on the streets led to Kim being arrested and being sent to a detention center where cruelty was so rampant that he started to feel more like an animal than a human being. After he got out, the thought of escaping to China seemed like it could be his last ditch effort to stay alive. If he was caught, he’d likely be killed or imprisoned anyway so he took the chance in hopes that he could somehow find and reunite with Bong Sook there.
At first, the prospects of a better life in China seemed dim as well. Seeing that many people there were well off, he thought they’d be willing to share some food scraps or leftover rice with him. But he was rejected. He told me, “[In] China [was] where I lost my faith in humanity.”
At first, Kim believed that this woman – and all Christians by extension – must be rich because they were so willing to give away money. Later on, he learned this pastor’s wife was not rich at all and that her husband couldn’t even afford to have his very bad dental problems fixed.
“I was just not able to process that,” Kim told me. “That’s when I wanted to understand what they believe and what Christianity was because I was so touched by what she did…The Christians that I met in China restored my faith and belief in humanity.”
With help from a group of underground activists, Kim was secretly taken to the American consulate in China and was brought to the United States as a refugee. In addition, he started reading the Bible and has now become a Christian himself. Today, he is a college student devoted to getting a good education and also reuniting with the sister he misses so much – the sister who inspired his memoir’s title because he takes comfort in knowing they both live “Under the Same Sky.”
Kim concluded, “Finding my sister is an ultimate goal for my life. I will definitely continue my education. But more than just education, I [want to] learn how to become more compassionate toward people, toward North Korean people…Sometimes, I forget where I come from, and I feel like I tend to pursue goals and dreams for myself. It’s an inconvenient truth. So education is going to help me help people. But more than education, I think [I have to] develop my character and become a person who cherishes and values love.”
(To listen to my full interview with Joseph Kim, click on the podcast link:)
(Author photo by Martin Bentsen, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
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