Sungju Lee was born in Pyongyang, North Korea. He had an idyllic childhood with a good home, a bright future, and parents who cared deeply for him. But as he describes in his memoir (written with Susan McClelland), his life was abruptly turned upside down and became harder than he could have imagined after his father fell out of favour with the country’s brutal regime.
As a child, Lee never questions the regime or its leader (first Kim Il-sung and then Kim Jong-il); his greatest dream is to become a general and serve his country. Then he arrives home one day to be told his family is leaving on a “northern vacation.” Lee, who is 11, moves north to Gyeong-seong, where he is immediately shocked by the differences between the capital city where he grew up and what he sees in the rest of the country.
Lee describes these events from his childhood perspective; as such, he only gradually realizes he has moved into a famine area. This drastic shift in circumstances means that, despite a burning desire to study, Lee must leave school to help his parents in their daily searches for food. As the situation becomes increasingly desperate, first Lee’s father and then his mother disappear. Before he reaches his teens, Lee is on his own.
In order to avoid starving, Lee bands together with some former classmates, and quickly comes to see the gang members as his brothers. The boys move around the countryside stealing, fighting, and evading the police. One of the most disturbing parts of Lee’s story involves the gang’s time in the local guhoso, a prison for homeless youth that is harder to survive than living on the street. (Of one guard, Lee says simply: “I saw nothing human inside him.”)
The reader follows Lee as he loses his innocence; each of his “coming-of-age” moments is increasingly brutal, from abandoning his beloved dog in Pyongyang to watching an execution on a class field trip to experiencing the death of one of his brothers, Lee faces loss and mortality at an age at which most Canadian kids are merely facing puberty.
It quickly becomes clear it’s the kids in Lee’s world who really know what’s going on: when adults try to hide the truth or are absent, it’s up to the youth to figure out how to survive. It also doesn’t take long for Lee to realize his views on what makes a person “good” no longer apply once he leaves Pyongyang – in the words of one of his brothers, “morality is a great song a person sings when he or she has never been hungry.”
After five years of living as a street orphan, Lee is found and smuggled out of North Korea by his father, who escaped to South Korea and then spent years tracking down his son. Considering all he went through, Lee’s subsequent recovery is nothing short of remarkable: after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism from Sogang University in Seoul, he accepted the opportunity to intern with Canadian MP Barry Devolin in the summer of 2014 (during which time he met McClelland), and is currently studying international relations in the U.K.
This is a hard book to read because Lee’s story is so horrific. While it does not dwell on details, the mere mention of what he faced may make readers want to put the book down. Lee explains in the acknowledgements that he wrote the book to help young readers understand that the difference between them and their North Korean counterparts is one of circumstance. This book is an eye-opening history that needs to be told, but young readers should be prepared for the horrors they will face in its pages.