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The underground Christian network smuggling refugees out of North Korea

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If such a thing as a normal childhood can be had in North Korea, Joseph Kim had it. He lived with his father, mother and older sister in Hoeryong, a city that benefits from being the birthplace of Kim Il-sung’s first wife.

There, young families had normal goods and services: a grocery store, a barber shop, an ice-cream parlor. At the end of each day, the neighborhood children would gather around the television and gorge themselves on popcorn and candy.

What Kim’s family did not know was that Hoeryong was, and remains, home to a maximum-security concentration camp, one of six the country is known to run.

As he writes in his new memoir, “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Kim and his family believed that they wanted for nothing.

“We were all alike,” he writes, “one big North Korean family, or so it seemed to me.”

When Kim was nearly 4 years old, his father, a respected member of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was so successful that he was able to build a house for his young family. It was 1994.

Kim was enrolled in kindergarten, which children attend for two years. There, he learned about the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and the importance of constant, daily worship. Every North Korean was to have a framed picture of Kim Il-sung and his wife in their homes.

“You could be sent to a prison camp for allowing dirt to gather on Kim Il-sung’s portrait, or for putting it behind cracked glass,” Kim writes. The first thing his father did every morning was to carefully clean those frames.

The children also learned about America, mainly through illustrations. Teachers showed their students drawings of American soldiers spearing pregnant North Korean women with bayonets and marching them into gas chambers.


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