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'Under the Same Sky' vividly describes a North Korean's incredible journey to the US

Joseph Kim found his way from hunger and chaos in North Korea to life as a college student in New York City.

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Under the Same Sky:
From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America
By Joseph Kim and Stephan Talty
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
288 pp.

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This book is a remarkable tale of a homeless youth's survival in North Korea, his daring escape to China, and his eventual transition to life in the US.

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.

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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.  

Kim wrote this book with Stephan Talty, a journalist who has co-authored nonfiction books such as “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.”

For Kim, famine began when he was 5 years old. Until then, the author recalls living a routine life – playing with friends and having plenty to eat. He grew up worshipping North Korean leaders, and believing propaganda about ruthless Americans.

But when the hard times began, Kim recalls, there was no government presence as whole provinces of people swarmed onto overcrowded trains, desperately fleeing in search of food.

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. His mother and beloved older sister engage in small-scale enterprises to earn a bit of cash, but the sister ends up disappearing in China – probably sold as a bride. His mother is gone for lengthy periods – sometimes smuggling goods from China, sometimes in prison for pursuing that illegal activity – leaving Kim on his own.

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He 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.

At times, this book reads like a “how to” guide to begging and stealing in North Korea. For example, we learn that beggars in North Korea don’t ask for a meal – they only hope to get the last couple of swallows of other people’s soup, or the last bites of their food.

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).

Even during the worst of times, Kim finds out, people with the right government connections were living quite comfortably. Most of those people – even his relatives – shunned him, and few were willing to help.

“The famine in North Korea killed hundreds of thousands of people,” Kim writes, adding that it also dissolved families and “broke up deep, committed friendships over something as small as a cornmeal cake. Even if your body survived, you would find someday that your soul had been marked in ways you couldn’t know until much later.”

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. The book is a quick read – divided into short chapters – each with a foreshadowing of what is coming next.

Kim was one of many North Korean refugees hidden and helped by Christians in China. Kim knew nothing about Christianity before fleeing to China, yet his conversion to that faith is given little attention at the end of this book. Nor do we get a clear picture as to why Kim was chosen to be resettled in the US, or why he was given no English language training before being sent to an American high school.

Kim’s 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.

Mike Revzin, a journalist who worked in Asia, helps Americans learn about China with his ChinaSeminars.com programs.