He was just like every other little boy in Pyongyang, taking taekwondo lessons and dreaming of becoming a general in Kim Il-sung’s army. In Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, DPRK-escapee Sungju Lee tells of his family’s fall from grace, his life as an orphan on the streets, and his eventual path to freedom. Although aimed at a young adult audience, Lee’s memoir provides an unflinching look at what happens to Pyongyang families who displease the Leader.
Most North Korean memoirs come from individuals who lived in the northern part of the Hermit Kingdom and escaped famine through China and Southeast Asia. Every Falling Star is different. Lee spent the first 11 years of his life living in North Korea’s well-kept capital city, wanting for nothing, believing that the outlandish stories he heard about Kim Il-sung were true. When his family is sent to live in North Hamgyeong Province — a place where people starve, children smoke, and schoolboys disappear mysteriously — Lee sees for the first time that the DPRK is not as it appears.
When the family’s resources run out, Lee’s parents leave him. His father plans to smuggle goods across the Chinese border. His mother goes to ask her sister for aid. Neither returns. Lee finds an old school chum, who has dropped out of his lessons to care for his ailing grandmother. Together, they start a gang of street boys, or kotjebi, and travel around the province, robbing market vendors and avoiding the police.
Every Falling Star does not romanticize life on the street. There are drugs, moral dilemmas, prostitutes, and copious amounts of alcohol. As Lee relates his transformation from soft Pyongyang boy to hardened kotjebi, one doesn’t get the feeling that he’s holding anything back. He is open about the crimes he and his mates committed, and about the limits they had to push in order to survive.
Unique in that it offers a look at life in Pyongyang and the northern province from an author who lived in both, Lee’s memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the Hermit Kingdom.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.
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Image Credit: (stephan)