About the time that North Korean founder Kim Il-sung died, unbeknownst to North Korea’s citizens, Russia stopped subsidizing the nation with food and fertilizer. Then, in 1995, biblical rains and flooding washed away what few crops grew. What little there was of the electrical grid went out.
North Korea plunged into a great famine. Within weeks, Joseph Kim’s father, a respected member of the Workers’ Party of Korea who had been so successful that he was able to build a house for his young family, was unable to feed his family. Kim’s mother was ripping up any plant she could find, edible or not, and force-feeding it to Kim and his sister.
“Your belly is temporarily full, but you can tell no nutrients are flowing to your limbs, that there’s no fat to make your tastebuds happy,” he writes in his memoir, “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America.”
The deprivation was sudden and severe. A next-door neighbor’s grandfather died of starvation. His parents began fighting brutally over how to get food; his father refused to engage in bribes or the black market, believing such things morally wrong. His mother was in agony: “You’re sacrificing your own children!”
She sold her wedding dress to buy what little food was available. “We were dying,” Kim writes. “Our eyeballs pushed from their sockets, or so it seemed. Really, our faces were just growing leaner. We had little energy for playing or reading books or anything else.”
By spring 1996, the family’s lone daily meal was a handful of weeds, but some days, they only had tiny sips of water.
Kim’s mother went to stay with her own parents. His father decided their best hope was with his brother, who lived near Pyongyang and was a major in the Korean People’s Army. They traveled by train, and a journey that should have taken less than 10 hours took them three weeks, each car stuffed with the starving and unwashed, no room for anyone to move. Continued