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A Boy and a Girl Who Escaped the Worst Place on Earth

Melanie Kirkpatrick

Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America By Joseph Kim
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 274 pages, $28)

The Girl with Seven Names By Hyeonseo Lee
(William Collins, 304 pages, $26.99)

Not so long ago, the world was mostly ignorant of the human-rights abuses taking place in North Korea. Since the late 1990s, however, when a modern-day underground railroad began to carry North Koreans to safety in South Korea and the West, we’ve had a window into the horrors of ordinary life there, as well as into the desperate situations of North Koreans who flee to neighboring China. This knowledge comes thanks to escapees who have given their testimonies to journalists and human-rights investigators and recorded them in personal memoirs.

Two new memoirs—Joseph Kim’s “Under the Same Sky” and Hyeonseo Lee’s “The Girl With Seven Names”—are valuable additions to that literature. Both books are page-turners—fast-paced, suspenseful and novelistic. Will Joseph, then a boy of 14, make it safely across the frozen river to China without North Korean border guards shooting him in the back? Will Hyeonseo, 17 years old when she flees, elude the Chinese pimps who kidnap or coerce vulnerable North Korean women into working in the sex trade?

Each memoir follows the same rough outline. First is a description of the author’s upbringing in North Korea, where every aspect of life, including access to food, is dependent on the whims of the Kim family regime. Next comes the author’s decision to leave and an account of life on the run in China: Beijing’s cruel policy is to track down, arrest and repatriate North Koreans hiding there. Last is the story of the author’s final escape—out of China to South Korea in Ms. Lee’s case, to the U.S. in Mr. Kim’s.

By the time Mr. Kim fled North Korea, his father had died of starvation, and his mother had disappeared after taking his older sister to China, where the author believes she was sold as a bride. Mr. Kim’s daily existence was focused on food—working for it, begging for it, stealing it. Friendships broke up over competition for “something as small as a cornmeal cake,” he writes. “Even if your body survived you would find someday that your soul had been marked in ways you couldn’t know until much later.” As many as two million North Koreans died in the famine of the late 1990s, and severe food shortages continue to this day.

Mr. Kim’s descriptions of starvation are searing. Dogs disappear. Reports of cannibalism abound. Corpses are left in the fields to rot. Mr. Kim recalls wondering: How could North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, allow such suffering to take place? He describes, too, the breakdown of civil society, the absence of the rule of law and the rise of corruption as a way of life. “Everyone in the West talks about the oppressive, invasive government of North Korea,” he writes, “but what I experienced then was more frightening to a child: a complete absence of authority of any kind.”

In China, Mr. Kim’s luck turns. A stranger advises him that Christians help North Koreans, so he “wandered the streets of Tumen City looking for crosses.” When he found one, he writes, “I walked into the church. I saw a verse on the wall, Matthew 11:28: ‘Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ I felt it had been written especially for me. The words penetrated to my heart, and my hopes revived.” His Chinese church friends fed and sheltered him for a year—all the while risking arrest and imprisonment for the crime of helping a North Korean. They eventually put him in touch with a California-based rescue organization called Liberty in North Korea, which helped him reach the U.S.

Ms. Lee fared better during the famine years because of her family’s privileged status. Yet she saw starvation all around her. Starvation can drive people to insanity, she writes. “It can cause parents to take food from their own children, people to eat the corpses of the dead, and the gentlest neighbor to commit murder.”

Her account of how she survived 10 years underground in China is riveting. “I was trapped in a foreign country with no identity,” she writes. Like every North Korean refugee in China, she found that her biggest fear was that she would be arrested and sent back to North Korea. To keep one step ahead of the authorities, she would move from city to city, change her name and find waitressing jobs in the black economy. “I had become an accomplished liar,” she says. At one point she dated a policeman “for protection.”

She eventually saved enough money to purchase the Chinese identity card of a mentally ill woman whose family needed the money to pay for her care. With her official ID, she obtained a Chinese passport, which she used to buy a plane ticket to Seoul. And then, irony of ironies, after a decade of hiding her identity as a North Korean, she couldn’t persuade security officials in South Korea that she was from the North. It took days of interrogation before they believed her and allowed her to remain in the South. Once in Seoul, Ms. Lee orchestrated the escape from North Korea of her mother and brother, an account that is also fascinating.

Both Joseph Kim and Hyeonseo Lee went on to college and became advocates on behalf of human rights for North Koreans. Both realize that they were extraordinarily lucky—to escape in the first place and then to survive as refugees in China. As their memoirs make clear, that’s not the case for the tens of thousands of refugees who are hiding in China or for the 25 million people who are still imprisoned in North Korea’s slave state.

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