North Korean Defector Reflects On Life 'Under The Same Sky' In his new memoir, Joseph Kim tells the harrowing tale of his journey from being homeless on the streets of North Korea to a college student in America.
NPR logo

North Korean Defector Reflects On Life 'Under The Same Sky'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/410244293/410837089" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
North Korean Defector Reflects On Life 'Under The Same Sky'

North Korean Defector Reflects On Life 'Under The Same Sky'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/410244293/410837089" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

Few of us can imagine what it's like to be homeless and starving as a child. Few of us can imagine life in the hermit kingdom of North Korea, but refugee Joseph Kim knows both very well. And he gives us a window into those worlds in his new memoir "Under The Same Sky: From Starvation In North Korea To Salvation in America." NPR's Arun Rath spoke with Joseph about his harrowing experience as a homeless boy on the streets of North Korea.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

There's a clear division in recent North Korean history - before the famine and after. And before the famine in the early 1990s, Joseph remembers a relatively happy childhood.

JOSEPH KIM: I was only 4 or 5 years old when the famine began. So I can't really remember much from before, but what I can remember is that I was actually being able to play with my friends. Everything was peaceful. I didn't have to worry about when is the next meals going to come or whether we are going to have food or not.

RATH: Soon things started to change. At first, it was little signs. Joseph's parents couldn't give him the extra snacks he liked to eat. They had to sell their TV.

KIM: And then I started listening my parents having conversation about how the neighborhood grandmother died of starvation. And that kind of stories continued on and on.

RATH: When Joseph was 12, his father died of starvation. His mother and sister went to China in search of work and food.

KIM: So my mom actually ended up - make a very difficult decision, which was to sell my older sister to Chinese man. Then she came back to me in North Korea and she explained to me, but I didn't really understand at the time. But now I think about it, like, I mean, my mom did it so that she could at least save her younger - youngest child, which was me. After that my mom tried to go to China again to look for my sister and earn some money, but she got caught, so she was put in the prison facility.

RATH: Joseph found himself alone and homeless. As a younger kid he was introverted, too shy to say hi to his classmates. Now, he was begging strangers for food.

KIM: In order to survive as homeless, probably one of the first things that you have to do is to keep up your human dignity, because if you try to keep yourself as human being and try to preserve that your rights and the right to be treated, you're not going to be able to ask for food. I mean, it's really humiliating.

RATH: Desperation drove him to be creative, courageous, even hopeful to survive, but it brought out a dark side.

KIM: You also have to cross that - the line where you have to stop worrying about or thinking about the morality. I mean, I was taught in school that don't steal it, but then if I don't steal it, I can't survive.

RATH: After three years on the streets, the 15-year-old Joseph didn't think he could survive any longer in North Korea. Having grown up in a town near the Chinese border, Joseph had heard stories of people who tried to escape in the night. Some made it across. Others were killed in the attempt. But Joseph had never heard of someone being audacious enough to cross the border during the day. He decided to take that risk.

KIM: I crossed where the river was frozen, so I was able to run across the border and there was no security guard. Distance was not that long - maybe, like, hundred yards, but I feel like that was probably the fastest that I ran in my life.

RATH: Once in China, Joseph soon connected with a network of activists helping North Korean refugees like himself. They got into the U.S. consulate and then to America. Joseph arrived in the U.S. in 2007 - a 17-year-old with no family and barely an education. Since then he's finished high school and moved to New York City for college.

KIM: Friends are treating me as just a normal Korean-American student. Although they know my stories, I think my friends allow me to be part of their group without labeling me as North Korean defector, so I feel definitely welcomed and accepted.

RATH: That's Joseph Kim. His new memoir is called "Under The Same Sky: From Starvation In North Korea To Salvation in America." It's out on Tuesday.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.