If such a thing as a normal childhood can be had in North Korea, Joseph Kim had it. He lived with his father, mother and older sister in Hoeryong. At the end of each day, the neighborhood children would gather around the television and gorge themselves on popcorn and candy.
When Kim was nearly 4-years-old, his father, a respected member of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was so successful that he was able to build a house for his young family. It was 1994.
As he writes in his new memoir, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Kim and his family believed that they wanted for nothing.
What Kim’s family did not know was that Hoeryong was, and remains, home to a maximum-security concentration camp, one of six the country is known to run.
Every North Korean was to have a framed picture of Kim Il-sung and his wife in their homes. “You could be sent to a prison camp for allowing dirt to gather on Kim Il-sung’s portrait, or for putting it behind cracked glass,” Kim writes.
The children learned about America, mainly through illustrations. Teachers showed their students drawings of American soldiers spearing pregnant North Korean women with bayonets and marching them into gas chambers.
“I held my breath,” Kim writes, “as the teachers explained that Americans had come to our country to massacre Koreans for no other reason than they liked to … the only people who stopped the Americans from coming to my country, our teachers said, were Kim Il-sung and the soldiers of North Korea.”