Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Review: Under the Same Sky

Book Review: Under the Same Sky, by Joseph Kim.  288 pages.

Under the Same Sky is Joseph Kim’s story of survival during North Korea’s famine that started in 1994 and killed hundreds of thousands (wiki), and of his escape to freedom.  It is a story of suffering, betrayal, hope and family.  

Lives are full of ups and downs, and Kim’s story is no different.  I lost count of the good breaks and bad breaks Kim endured during his life in North Korea.  Each up and down for Kim, however, meant life or death, and he describes both in detail.  He finds someone to give him food and shelter, and he rejoins civilization and regains his health.  He is abandoned, and he rejoins the Khotjebi - the homeless children begging for crumbs in the streets, always a day away from death.

This book is about Kim’s experiences, his desperation and his family.  The hunger turned Kim and his countrymen inward, breaking community bonds and even family bonds.  There were families that stayed intact, but Kim’s family was not one of those.  The story reflects these realities with little said about Kim Jong-il, the communist state or anything political.  From a starving boy’s eyes, he only knows family, school and friends.

Kim lived in the North, near the China border.  I was surprised that crossing the border was not uncommon nor a taboo topic even among loyal government workers.  For some it is a way of life and from Kim’s eyes, a lucrative option.  I was equally surprised at how much suffering Kim and others endured when that option was open to them all along.  Kim finally does make the trip across the Tumen River, but the circumstances of his crossing were not what I had expected.

For North Koreans, China is prison #2 on the path to freedom.  A North Korean in China is not protected, and if caught is returned to North Korea where he is promptly thrown in the gulag.  You’ll see this happen to Kim’s mother more than once.  Further, those who cross into China most often do so with the intention of returning, including Kim.  

As you know, in place of the typical blog Donate button I have pointed Ushanka visitors to Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK.  They help North Koreans who are trapped in China to escape to freedom in either South Korea or the United States.  LiNK will share a story or two of their work, but they must keep the stories vague as they are breaking Chinese laws.  Kim comes in contact with LiNK, and his story is the most detailed I’ve read about how he makes his escape to the States.  I am more impressed than ever with LiNK.  The author’s dedication on page 272:
I want to thank all past, present, and future LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) interns, nomads, and staff who have dedicated their lives to the lives of the North Korean people.  Thank you for believing in us.  You inspire me with your determination and commitment to bring justice, peace, and liberty to North Korea.  Please keep up your hard work.
New Terms:
Saro-Cheong - North Korean Department of Youth.
Khotjebi - Wandering Sparrows.  The name for the abandoned children during the famine.
Under the Same Sky is the fifth book in the Ushanka Library (see left) about North Korea.

See the author’s TED talk.

You can buy the book here

See my Book Notes - here -  selected quotes.

Click here to learn more about LiNK.

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