5 Ways North Korea Is Much Worse Than You Think

istock (wood) / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (cover)
istock (wood) / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (cover) / istock (wood) / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (cover)

You might think you have some idea of what life is like for North Korean peasants. You’re probably wrong. Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America recounts author Joseph Kim’s life in North Korea, and how he eventually escaped. Though the book is beautifully written in a dignified and measured tone, Kim’s life makes the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath look like revelers in The Great Gatsby. Here are five things I learned about North Korea from Under the Same Sky.

1. Life is hard, if not impossible.

When a famine swept across North Korea beginning in 1994, peasants had no idea what was coming. As far as anyone knew, things were going swimmingly and food subsidies from Russia never stopped. As trouble rolled in, the state media certainly didn’t discuss it; food just slowly vanished in a steady squeeze. Hundreds of thousands of people would eventually die from starvation, and some estimates put the number upward of 10 percent of the country’s population. The result was such regular sights as bodies piled outside of train stations, dead of hunger and heat fatigue while waiting for transportation somewhere—anywhere. The rare improvised restaurant out of someone’s home was salvation, or a curse. When animals could not be found, human flesh was rumored to be substituted. A constant fear grew from this of never allowing your children to play outside unsupervised.

2. There is hope in China.

North Korea buzzes with rumors of a better life in China, and stories proliferate of people who slipped across the border, became rich, and brought money back to North Korea in order to feed their families. Money, it was said, was easy to make in China, and there’s a great life to be made as a trader. The process: slip into China, buy goods, bring them home, and sell them. “But how many trips would it take to get rich off North Koreans?” Kim writes with the benefit of retrospection. “Innumerable, countless ones. It was absurd, the whole thing, but it didn’t stop me from populating my dreams with crazy feats.”

The path to China is dangerous. Rumors among North Koreans suggest that the river is electrified with 33,000 volts of electricity. One can be arrested on either side of the Tumen River, which makes up a large stretch of the border separating North Korea and China. Captured defectors can expect to be marched through the streets of some North Korean towns—not for humiliation, but because there are no cars. Waiting at police stations are torture, beatings, and duress positions.

3. The North Korean government is cartoonish and terrifying.

Growing up, Joseph Kim was taught that Kim Il-Sung was a kind of bureaucratic Santa Claus. “He was our grandfather; he had magical powers; he was the smartest man in the world; and he often flew around the countryside keeping watch on all of his children,” Kim writes. Allowing dust to collect on a portrait of Kim Il-Sung was an offense that carried a prison sentence. So did forgetting to wear one’s Kim Il-Sung badge. The North Korean government’s most effective method of propaganda is by way of statues and giant concrete billboards, each of which contain such propaganda messages as “CHUN LEE MAH,” which means, “We must work a thousand times harder than other countries.” (Engraved concrete is valuable for pro-government propaganda because unlike radio or television, it does not require electricity.) When the famine hit its full stride, the government ramped up its patriotic campaigns, mounting such efforts as the “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day” drive. Meanwhile, city dwellers were put to work in the fields, where they farmed from pre-dawn to nighttime.

4. You don’t want to go to a detention camp.

Young delinquents need not be afraid of the police, who are easily purchased for very little money. State-controlled agencies are the real threat. The North Korean Department of Youth, for example, runs detention camps and is responsible for everyone between the ages of 14 and 28. Detention camp crimes include truancy, thievery, and failure to properly honor North Korean leaders. Especially during the famine, such camps were useful for imposing forced starvation on citizens without fear of the public witnessing such atrocities. Kim described his typical detention camp meal as “watery soup and maggoty cornmeal, and not enough of either.” Older inmates enforce the rules at detention centers, resulting in a Lord-of-the-Flies-type operation. When a detainee is targeted for beatings, it’s not pretty: “It was a competition to see who could hit the hardest. The boy’s skull was their favorite target.” During night hours, older inmates allowed (if not required) singing, but never sad songs, not wanting to “disturb the good atmosphere.”

5. Slipping across the Chinese border is only the first step in escaping North Korea.

North Koreans who have made it across the Tumen River must quickly come to grips with reality. It’s a shock to learn that every Chinese citizen isn’t rich, and that border towns do not want to deal with refugees. And there’s no hiding one’s North-Korean-ness. Emaciation, ravenous appetite, and filthy clothes are one indicator, but so too is basic demeanor and bearing. (Trying, for example, to be invisible in public.) Good advice for North Korean refugees is to keep moving so as to avoid Chinese police. This isn’t necessarily easy because of how overwhelming everything is. The buildings are taller, colors are brighter and in greater variety, and people are wearing fashionable clothes.

Another bit of advice handed down that, in Kim’s case, turned out to be incredibly important, was to seek out churches in China. (“What’s a church?” Kim asked upon hearing this.) Churches, he was told, will give you money. (“Why would these church people just give you money?” / “Because they’re Christians.” / “What are Christians?” / “The people in the churches.”) A charity at one such church eventually conspired to help Kim find asylum in the United States. Not everyone is so lucky, however. Some are never discovered by charities. Many young, desperate North Korean women are sold into China as household slaves. Others are sold into the sex trade. As Under the Same Sky makes very clear, life for the average North Korean is hard, and good fortune in short supply.