July 4, 2015


Finding hope in a trash can: How a North Korean boy kept himself from starving and made it to America (Elizabeth Tenety, July 1, 2015, LA Times)

It's hard to believe what Joseph Kim, then Kwang Jin, endured in the late-1990s and early 2000s, while here in America we were living through a tech boom, blasting songs from the Spice Girls and soaking in episodes of American Idol. But after the Great Famine hit in 1994, Kim, who was only four at the time, was left to spend most of his childhood living in near-starvation.

"Hunger is humiliation. But hunger is also evil," he writes after fantasizing about stealing food from a baby. "The weaker we grew, the less terrifying death seemed," he explains in the book.

[More inspiration: The surprisingly simple way Utah solved chronic homelessness and saved millions]

It's truly remarkable that Kim was able to live, surviving not through one particular act of heroism or generosity, but through a thousand small triumphs: a handful of stolen kernels of corn, a few calories from weed soup, the scraps of a meal left behind from a traveler. At points his belly swelled from hunger; at others his eyes bulged from starvation. Through years spent begging, stealing, hustling and trading, Kim found a way to survive, although many others did not. His father did not make it. 

Kim's devoted father, once a government official, died of starvation when Joseph was 13. His mother and sister, who would sneak him food, ultimately fled to China; they have not been heard from in 10 years. Now an American citizen and living in Brooklyn, Kim says in an interview that when he wonders why he survived, he thinks of the affection his family always showed him; love that gave him the hope to carry on.

"My definition of hope is not something philosophical or deep," Kim explains. "To me, hope is what kept me going and what still keeps me going."

"What I mean by hope can also mean resilience or 'don't give up.' For example, when I was homeless, I was digging through trash cans to look for food, but because there were so many other homeless kids doing the same thing, it was really difficult for me to tell myself I'd have to go to the next trash can, too. I knew that even to get to the next one, there is a probability that there wouldn't be anything. But I had to keep myself believing that there was hope in the next one. That was the only option that I had."

How can otherwise decent people believe this would be a better country if we kept such folk out until they won a green card lottery?

Posted by at July 4, 2015 9:11 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus