“Under the Same Sky” vividly describes what Joseph Kim and millions of other North Koreans endured during famines that began in the 1990s. Kim is one of the few North Korean escapees to end up in the United States.
Unlike most books about North Korea, the frightening aspect of this story is not a police state’s rigid control over its people – it is the chaos and absence of any authority during the time of crisis, with desperate citizens left to fend for themselves.
The book does include some accounts of the brutality of the police state, such as when Kim is beaten at a youth detention center. But, for the most part, the soldiers in Kim’s world are malnourished young men who rob peasants in remote areas of the countryside, while the police who patrol outdoor markets are there mainly to take bribes from thieves.
For Kim, famine began when he was 5 years old. Kim explicitly describes how near-starvation affected his body and mind. He also recounts how it affected his family. His parents eventually lost everything they owned, and the family members became squatters in an abandoned building. Kim’s father dies an agonizing death, due to illness and hunger.
Kim resorts to begging and stealing, and even risks public execution for the theft of state property – manhole covers – selling the iron for enough money to buy a bowl of noodles.Kim describes the techniques he used for stealing food from farmers’ fields and urban dwellings, the pecking order among thieves, and even the moral code (don’t steal from mothers with young children).
The book offers fascinating details about daily life in North Korea – such as how the country comes to a standstill every evening as the whole nation watches dramas and soap operas on TV.
It’s not a spoiler to mention that Kim escaped to China, but the way in which he did it comes as quite a surprise. Kim was one of many North Korean refugees hidden and helped by Christians in China. His transition to life in the U.S. was difficult, but he is currently a college student in New York City and has even told the story of his childhood in a TED Talk.
[Christian Science Monitor]