This is a powerful true story that needs to be told. Sungju's father is in the North Korean army, and Sungju is being raised to follow in his father's footsteps. Because of his dad's position, the family lives in luxury, having a three-bedroom apartment in Pyongyang, a refrigerator full of meat and vegetables, and even a baby grand piano. Life for them is perfect--until one day when it isn't, and the Le family is forced to learn the hard way that the North Korea they think they know and love is an illusion.
Because of an unspecified trespass (blamed, of course, on Japan and the "evil Americans") Sungju's father loses his position, and the family is exiled to the northern part of the country. Most of their belongings are taken away from them, even their dog, and Sungju's dream life quickly becomes a nightmare. He awakens to a North Korea with people "unlike any I’d seen in Pyongyang. Their skin sagged, their eyes were sinking into their faces, and their skin color was bluish, almost gray, like the clouds that rolled off the East Sea in February."
Welcome to the North Korea most North Koreans know, a place where food is scarce, electricity is limited, people disappear, citizens don't trust one another, children die and no one cares, and school kids take field trips to public executions. Le's days of studying, playing, and being with family are replaced by days and nights of stealing, fighting, leading a gang, doing drugs, and barely holding on to life. Struggling to survive becomes a part of daily life.
Because of their oppressive environment, many North Koreans have the ultimate victim mentality, but they see the West as their oppressors, and they believe the propaganda that says the world is out to get them. Completely dependent on the government for their livelihoods, they view their leader as their savior and their only true protector. With no access to the outside world, and nothing but state-run media, the people of North Korea have no way of knowing that the Kim family they worship and depend on are the people who hurt them more than the outside world ever could. The authors describe North Korea as "indeed a Hermit Kingdom: a true-to-life dystopian nation." How tragic, yet how true.
My heart goes out to the people of North Korea. I can't imagine living under a harsh totalitarian government that controls every aspect of its people's lives, along with a state-run media engineered to make the people worship the very leader who keeps them starving and repressed. Sungju and several others in the book eventually learned the truth about their country, but knowing the truth and being able to change it are two different things.
Fortunately Le was able to make the harrowing journey out of North Korea and now works to help other people in similar situations. Ultimately, he says, "My story is about friendship, love, and hope in terrible circumstances. Hope is never lost. No one can take it away. Only you can give it. I refuse to ever give up hope to anyone." God bless this young man. His story serves as a reminder of why we should appreciate the freedoms we have and pray for the people of North Korea.
This book would be great to use in class as a way of introducing students to life behind the bamboo curtain.
A brief video of Sungju Le can be found here:
(ARC, views my own)