“North Korea has become a true hell on hearth, forgotten by the rest of the world. Even South Koreans, who share the same blood heritage, seem to have forgotten about the plight of their northern counterparts. At times, I feel overwhelmed by this sense of helplessness, by the feeling that there is nothing I can do to help my brothers and sisters to the north.”
My local bookclub’s March read, A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea was not an easy read. It is indeed a quick read and the writing is fairly simple, but, it was a must read as a true story. The author Eunsun Kim, along with sister and her mother embark on a hellish journey that would take them nine years to complete. Once the citizens of North Korea start dying of starvation (Arduous March that took away lives of 240,000 to 3.5 million) including the author’s grandparents and her father, they escape from their hometown Eunduk and their journey begins. They attempt to escape from North Korea a few times. When they successfully do escape and find themselves in China, they fall into the hands of human traffickers. They spend a few years basically as slaves until they are sent back to North Korea. They then escape and their journey begins again from North Korea to China, then to the isolated dry deserts of Mongolia. It took them a total of nine hard, hellish years to finally arrive in South Korea and start a new life.
My heart was heavy with guilt while reading this memoir. Being Korean, sharing the same blood heritage, I guess it’s normal to feel guilty. Survivor’s guilt, we call it. I was also guilty for being so oblivious to my motherland’s neighboring country. Well, is North still considered my motherland? I’m not sure. While reading this book, I could not help but wonder how South Koreans feel about reuniting (통일) with the North. I moved to Korea in 1998. South Korea was going through a disastrous financial crisis, so if asked about reuniting with the North, more leaned towards NO because they were afraid it would impact our economy even more. But in 2000, families that were torn apart reunited (for a brief moment). These heart-aching moments were broadcasted for many weeks. Seeing the now elderly citizens from both sides meet their families again, the entire country could not stop crying. I hope those moments tugged at our heart-strings. It’s been 80 years since the DMZ split Korea into two. And, the families / people that were torn apart from each other, they are aging and dying out. When no one that was directly affected by the split are the only ones that remain, will the younger generation even care?
I was not a fan of the writing (don’t know if it’s the writing or the translation) and I really hoped that the author would have provided details and descriptions of North Korea. I could not “see” her world, her journey through her eyes because she tells us how she feels rather than showing us the intricate details / events that made her feel the way she did. Also, she says that she loved her country, but left because she would soon die of starvation. Then later, she says she learned that North Korean leaders were evil (which is great she finally learned!) but without ever telling us of the turn of events that changed her view of her country. Though I did not like the writing, her journey is a true story and the story and her bravery itself deserves to be recognized. More than anything, this book brought awareness of my own “brothers and sisters.” And for that, I am grateful that my bookclub chose this very book!