Saturday, June 22, 2013


Joseph Kim: The family I lost in North Korea. And the family I gained. | Video on

This video came across my news feed today.  Another one of those TED talks, the ones that always make me wonder, "Where are these taking place?  Where can I get a ticket?"  So what the heck is TED?  TED was started in 1996 by a magazine publishing entrepreneur, Chris Anderson.  Originally a think tank for Technology, Entertainment and Design (hence, TED), the TED conferences have broadened their focus far beyond just those areas.  Now there is TEDGlobal, TEDWomen and TEDIndia, just to name a few.  But the basic premise remains the same: an exchange of ideas.  According to their website, "... (They) believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.  So (they are) building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other." Now that we've gotten the details out of the way, let's talk about Joseph.

I won't go into detail about his story, but I will implore you to watch the video.  If it doesn't bring you to tears, or at least put a small lump in your throat, you aren't human.  He describes being a poor child in North Korea, and how he ended up in the United States.

Joseph was born the same year as my oldest son.  As he spoke about his childhood, I imagined where my son was at each age.  I thought about my son having to paw through garbage cans to find scraps of something edible, or spending hours and hours searching for firewood.  About him being cold, or watching his father die of starvation.  Of finding his mother gone one morning, never to see her again.  Being homeless.

As you know, I am a sponge when it comes to stories about people overcoming difficulties.  (To call Joseph's early life a "difficulty" is a masterpiece of understatement; a difficulty is not being able to find a good parking place).  I have read many, many books about the war in the Philippines, probably because I lived there and evidence of the war was everywhere.  Only in my adulthood, after leaving the Philippines, did I learn about the Santo Tomas Internment Camp, where as many as 5000 civilians (men, women and children) were held prisoner for over three years.  THREE YEARS.  I probably went to school with kids whose parents or grandparents were there.

The story is bad enough, but I have come across hints that the American government may (and I emphasize may) have left these people behind in the Philippines on purpose, as a message to the Filipino people that they weren't abandoning them.  When civilians asked the State Department in Manila what they should do, they were reassured that Manila was the safest place in the Orient, and that they should stay.  Ostensibly, the belief was that if the entire foreign population had been evacuated, it would have killed the morale among the Filipino guerillas.  It was a huge win in the propaganda department; the Filipinos sided with their Western "friends" rather than the Japanese, even though a frequent motto of the Japanese army was "Asia for the Asiatics".  But at what price?

By the end of the war, the Japanese were providing as little as 800 calories a day to the prisoners.  (And I say prisoners, because the word "intern" sounds a little whitewashy to me).  Even fewer calories for the children.  As Joseph Kim says, starvation is humiliation.  Starving people is the ultimate control, the ultimate humiliation of a beaten people.  The Japanese thought that surrender was weakness, and so they treated their prisoners with appropriate disdain.  Starving people removes hope from their souls.  And where there is no hope, there is death.  At least Joseph had hope that he would find something in the garbage; otherwise he might not have even tried.

I saw starvation early in my life.  We had left Japan to go to Korea, something about renewing our visas.  It was winter, and very, very cold.  Walking along the sidewalk, we encountered so many children, small children, probably five or six years old, barefoot, selling chewing gum.  I remember being curious about them, but I didn't think much more than that.  I remember my mom rushing me past them, I guess because she was embarrassed (or ashamed?) or didn't want me to ask questions that she couldn't answer.  In the late 1960's, there were pictures of Biafran children on posters at our church.    It was then that I formed the notion of a hell on earth.  I don't need to remind anyone of the Great Depression of the 1930's.  I used to wonder why my grandmother always saved three leftover green beans in a tiny bowl, or a spoonful of mashed potatoes.  It was because she had lived through the Depression, and she had once been hungry.  Nowadays this would go down the disposal.

I can't imagine telling my child that there is no food.  I venture to say that few of us can imagine not having a pantry filled with cans of food, of not being able to go to a grocery store to fill up a shopping cart. To think that this kind of destitution exists today, in this world of plenty, is almost too much to comprehend.  And exist it does, not only in the oppressive regime of North Korea, but also in Africa, India, and just about every continent in the world, even North America.  Famines, while sometimes the result of natural disasters, (like the Irish potato famine) have also happened because of oppressive governments; China's "Great Leap Forward" and Stalinist Russia come to mind.  All this I learned in a college class called Sociology of the Third World; that sometimes hunger is a result of political unrest or civil war, or just plain meanness.  Makes me think these dictators have it all wrong.  If you beat a dog, does it make him love you?

To most of you, my dear readers, I may sound a little (or a lot?) like the suburban mom, telling her kids to clean their plates, because "there are starving children in ___".  Fill in the blank.

I don't know what my point is.  I could go on a whole tangent about the state of food in the United States, that it costs so much more to eat healthy, and that our government allows bad food into the chain by their loose standards of labeling.  With one hand they ban large sugary sodas, but with the other hand, they allow genetically modified and trans-fat laden foods into our grocery stores.  They tell us that we're bad because we're fat, while they provide the things that make us fat, and even encourage us to eat them!

I will end my rant by imploring, begging you to appreciate every single bite that passes your lips.  And if you aren't unemployed and struggling financially (like some of us, ahem!) send a few kopeks to your favorite charity that works to end hunger in the world.  And clean your plate.

Post Script:  The organization that brought Joseph Kim to the United States is called LINK ... Liberty in North Korea.  Check out their Facebook page at Liberty in North Korea and their website at  They are doing important work ...

No comments: