“People lay in the aisles of the cars, too weak to lift their heads for morsels of food; others were taken out to the fields on either side of the railbed and left to die,” Joseph Kim writes. “As we passed stations, I saw corpses piled up outside them, people who had been waiting and had expired in the heat.”
Kim writes of seeing one relative, an older woman, sneaking some of the very little food in the house and begging Kim not to tell — her own son had once caught her in the act and nearly yanked out her teeth with a pair of pliers.
Dogs vanished from the streets; so did rats. After even vermin became scarce, stories spread about people killing and eating their own infants and selling their children for food — stories Kim believes to this day.
Kim’s father sold half of the house for a week’s worth of cornbread, and after that ran out, he walked six hours to beg a cousin for food. The cousin refused. That was the end for Kim’s father. He began decompensating rapidly, screaming all day and all night in agony. It took two-and-a-half months for Kim’s father to die.
At his burial, Kim’s mother announced that she and his sister would be going to China; she had hired a broker to smuggle them out. His mother would eventually be caught and put in prison, and he later learned that she had sold his sister to a Chinese man.
Kim was 12-years-old. He spent the next three years bouncing between various relatives, but at times he lived on the streets or in a detention home for young boys and girls, where he would hear the screams of children being raped by the guards.
Yet security was lax, and after several months, he successfully ran away. With no family and no food, he did what had previously been unthinkable: One cold winter night, he snuck across the frozen Tumen river into China — one of the most common ways North Koreans attempt to escape, and one the government tries to discourage by telling its citizens that the water is laced with 33,000 volts of electricity.