Eunsun Kim had a relatively happy childhood.
As naive to the problems experienced by her country and her family as only small children can be, Kim enjoyed the small holidays designed to further the cult of the leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il and fully believed that her country was great.
Suddenly however, all of that changed. Her father fell in favor within the government and they joined the ranks of the starving. Soon, bereft of the will to continue, her father died. Any remaining family needed to look out for their own interests, or they too would starve. The government was hiding the truth from the people of the country, but in fact a massive famine was taking place in North Korea.
The book begins as Eunsun writes her will, sure that she is going to die of hunger any moment, her mother and only sister gone to look for food and long overdue. She was only 11 years old.
“Mom I wrote I am waiting for you. I have been waiting for you for six days. I feel like I am going to die soon. Why haven’t you come back to me yet?”
Then she cried herself to sleep. It’s an utterly sobering, tragic reality for so many North Koreans that it hurts to read her experience.
Eunsun’s story is a true testament to the human will to survive. The reader follows Eunsun, her mother and sister through a seriously unimaginable six-plus year journey involving sneaking out of North Korea through the frozen night into the cold woods of China; being sold to and living with a Chinese farmer, jail, eventually a terrifying journey through Mongolia in the hands of smugglers to escape to South Korea. It’s very interesting hearing the details of what North Korea is like from someone who grew up there, learning from the source about the culture.
Unfortunately either the translation or the writing is a little less than compelling and contains minor yet unique errors that can distract the reader. Within a short handful of pages upon beginning reading, variations of the sentence: ‘Behind her closed eyes, my mom must have been watching this seemingly endless nightmare replay over and over again in her mind,’ occurs three times or more. That’s what first jumped out to me as odd, more like a first draft than a finished work. Not that I in any way mind of course nor am I a master writer, but the overall tone of the book did continue to lack a certain something.
Mainly there is a huge detachment from being able to put yourself into the story, and a curious sense of I’m not sure what, perhaps entitlement? that causes Eunsun to complain often about things that you would think the average person in her position wouldn’t notice. She and her family were actually homeless for example, yet they would turn their nose up snobbishly and sniff at someone’s manners. It kind of made me laugh actually because this attitude carried her, her mother and sister eventually all the way to South Korea, and the narrative is peppered with it. Perhaps it helped her continue to look for ways to improve her lot in life instead of mildly accepting ill fortune, I’ll look at it like that.
Eunsun readily admits it was difficult for her at first to see the truth of North Korea under the Kims, that they are vicious autocrats and the people are suffering badly. Now however the situation is clear, and it’s painful for her to come to terms with.
Her country is clearly still in her heart as she tends to mention many times that in ‘her country’ things aren’t done that way, or in her country manners, food, people, are not that way. The implication is that it’s better where she came from which is a common enough patriotic thought but to me personally it is strangely at odds with how you’d expect an escapee from North Korea to be. Maybe that’s wrong of me to assume anything about how she should act or feel, we’ve all had cushy lives in comparison.
Still, Eunsun doesn’t like other nation’s foods, hated Mongolia, thought China was ugly, was irritated at the attitides of the smugglers who saved her, etc etc. It was an interesting attitude for someone who has lived the life of incredible hardships that she has, but owes much to others for her current life in safety. I applaud her for staying true to herself but it may jar some readers; or conversely they may not notice at all. When I mentioned this conundrum to my husband he said I was just a bad person. Okay he didn’t, but it was hard to review a book based on such hardship accurately.
In the end A Thousand Miles To Freedom is a worthwhile read, but sadly I also found it very forgettable. The connection between the many things Eunsun experienced and the readers emotions is too far apart for a lasting impact.