Beyond the Border

A Korean's Journey Between the North and South

Non-Fiction - Memoir
526 Pages
Reviewed on 12/18/2023
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

Beyond the Border: A Korean’s Journey between North and South is a heart-rending and horrific, yet ultimately triumphant tale of one man’s struggle to leave North Korea, seek education, and begin a new life in the democratic and free South. This is the personal memoir of Tae-hyok Kim transcribed by his granddaughter Nicole Kim Rogers based on journals, notes, and personal memories. The memoir spans from his early days on his family farm in North Korea to his daring trips across the 38th parallel, always at risk from North Korean border guards, to his years in the Republic of Korean Army (South) in the “forgotten war”, the United Nations action to stop the spread of communism on the Korean peninsula and ultimately the rest of Asia, to his attempts to seek an education at South Korea’s top universities, and ultimately his emigration to the United States and his attainment of his dream of an education and a new, free, democratic life. Tae-hyok Kim was just fifteen years old when he first made the perilous journey across the 38th parallel to seek work and education in the South Korean city of Seoul. Little did he realize, at the time, that eventually the 38th parallel and later the Demilitarized Zone would become an impassable barrier that would separate him from his parents and siblings forever. This story chronicles the amazing life and struggles of a young man seeking nothing more than freedom and the right to learn and grow without interference from ideologies and politics.

Beyond the Border is a uniquely personal story that chronicles the day-to-day struggles, dreams, and aspirations of an entire nation. Author Nicole Kim Rogers has done an amazingly empathetic and relatable job of bringing her grandfather’s fascinating and heroic story to life. So much of Tae-hyok Kim’s story evokes amazement at his courage, perseverance, indomitable spirit, and sheer determination to succeed against all the odds thrown at him. What came through in this incredible story is the disbelief of ordinary Korean people that a civilization that had lived on the peninsula unbroken for over two thousand years--the same people, culture, language, and shared history--could be split asunder by power-hungry rulers and political ideologies. I appreciated the early school days under Japanese rule when Tae-hyok Kim began to show glimpses of the determination and common sense that would serve him so well in future years, especially during his time in the South Korean Army. The portions that focused on the war years demonstrated the horrors of war, especially a war that pitted brother fighting against brother. That he was able to not only survive the privations, dangers, and horrors of this conflict plus his ensuing health issues and still retain his optimism and humanity are a real testimony to his character and his attitude. His meeting and subsequent marriage to Miss Lee was a sweet and innocent portion of what is a tough, uncompromising story and softened the narrative beautifully. Few stories have made such a deep impact on me. It has not only greatly expanded my understanding and knowledge of the history of the North vs South Korean conflict and the political machinations that led to the divide but it has filled me with understanding and hope, reminding me that all humanity is the same, with the same aspirations and dreams. This is a truly wonderful story that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Foluso Falaye

As a teenager, Tae-hyok Kim became a soldier in the South Korean Army and had to leave his family for better opportunities. In the early stages of the Korean War, Tae-hyok was tortured for a crime he didn't commit and labeled a spy for North Korea. Unfortunately, this was just one of his many hardships as he struggled to stay warm and awake on cold, snowy days while marching long distances with his army. In those days, Tae-hyok and his fellow soldiers put their faith in the assistance promised by the US and hoped communism would be overpowered in Korea. In Beyond the Border, Tae-hyok Kim and his granddaughter, Nicole Kim Rogers, share his chaotic experience of the Korean War, including the many losses and wins he faced both off and on the battleground.

Despite its dark war themes, this memoir contains several heartwarming, uplifting elements. In an exemplary moment of kindness, Tae-hyok refused to give in to his anger and hunger because he had to give a friend the remaining food he could find to keep him alive. The book includes a diverse mix of themes, such as war, politics, infatuation, migration, survival, camaraderie, health challenges, education, and more. Additionally, Tae-hyok and Nicole ensure that the book is filled with both historical and cultural information that leaves you feeling richer in knowledge after reading. Ultimately, Beyond the Border is a deeply captivating, informative, and poignant memoir that is great for fans of history and military memoirs. We all have a lot to learn from enlightening historical books like Beyond the Border, revealing that war is extremely dehumanizing.

Asher Syed

Beyond the Border: A Korean's Journey Between the North and South by Tae-hyok Kim and Nicole Kim Rogers begins with Kim's upbringing in a small North Korean village. Later, he journeys to Seoul and ultimately joins the army, where he endures mistreatment, a court-martial, and imprisonment before finally being declared innocent. Kim's story then transitions into the brutality of the Korean War and his engagement in conflict, experiencing the horrors of war. He is a witness to historically significant events, like the Inchon landing and advancing toward North Korea and Chinese resistance. Incredibly, he survived weeks of marching, malnourishment, combat, and innumerable hardships. He perseveres and finds solace in Christianity, aid work, and schooling post-discharge. The ceasefire is bittersweet as the demise of his family is revealed. Kim is the sole survivor to share his experiences, which he does in this memoir.

Beyond the Border is a historian's dream as there are so few books written in English about the Korean War through the eyes and memory of a North Korean son. Tae-hyok Kim gives us a clear and exhaustively comprehensive account of his experiences, a feat completed after his passing by his daughter, Nicole Kim Rogers. It is very hard to pinpoint standout portions because nothing in this book is more intriguing than any other, but if pressed to choose, I found the horrific torture Kim endured while being interrogated, accused by the South Korean Army he served of being a North Korean spy, and the sheer hopelessness of the situation to be absolutely heartbreaking. There are also moments of beauty and levity. Kim describes meeting a family and connecting with the daughter, whom he hoped to meet again, and a brief pause in fighting that had him celebrating his first Christmas. The writing is chronological, clean, and straightforward, making it accessible to readers of all levels. In addition to being an exceptional first-hand resource on the subject, Kim has given his family and generations to come a piece of their legacy, and it is spectacular. Very highly recommended.

Rabia Tanveer

Beyond the Border: A Korean's Journey Between the North and South by Tae-hyok Kim and Nicole Kim Rogers is a memoir in which Tae-hyok Kim shares his tumultuous life journey with readers. The author grew up in North Korea until it became too difficult, and he left his country as a teenager. In his short time spent in North Korea, Tae-hyok lived through the Japanese occupation, World War II, and the division of his country into North and South Korea. He was just 15 years old when he reached South Korea in the hopes of education and a better future. However, things took a different turn when he enlisted in the South Korean Army and played his role in the Korean War. He was forced to fight the people he had once called his nation. The experience left scars on his mind that he was never able to shake off.

I was sucked into Beyond the Border and Tae-hyok’s life on both sides of Korea. Divided into five parts, the story itself is mesmerizing. Authors Tae-hyok Kim and Nicole Kim Rogers did a fantastic job of making Tae-hyok’s memories come to life. I was very grateful for the abbreviations guide in the beginning, as well as for the guide to Korean words and phrases and Army ranks. That helped me understand what was happening. I felt sympathy for Tae-hyok Kim as he lived those miserable years in South Korea and the poverty he endured. The third part of the book shares the most chaotic two years of his life that changed him forever. The narrative style was immersive. It made me feel like I was right next to Tae-hyok Kim as he struggled to survive. His first Christmas experience brought me to tears. I was moved by his journey and felt a rush of admiration for him. This is the encouraging, motivating, and remarkable journey of a brilliant man. I highly recommend it!

K.C. Finn

Beyond the Border: A Korean's Journey Between the North and South is a work of non-fiction in the memoir, historical, and cultural writing subgenres. It was penned by author Tae-hyok Kim with assistance from co-author Nicole Kim Rogers to complete and refine it. This compelling true story unfolds in a divided nation from the unique perspective of its author. Born in 1931 in Korea, Tae-hyok Kim's life takes a dramatic turn as his country is divided into North and South after World War II. Leaving North Korea at fifteen in search of education in the South, he navigates the treacherous 38th Parallel, facing capture by border guards. Opting to stay in South Korea to escape communism, he unexpectedly finds himself enlisting in the South Korean Army just as the Korean War begins. Having interviewed her 92-year-old grandfather, co-author Nicole Kim Rogers continues Tae-hyok's memoir, making it a testament to pursuing one's dreams, survival, loss, separation, and the universal desire for freedom.

Author team Tae-hyok Kim and Nicole Kim Rogers clearly have a very special bond that has enabled them to bring Tae-hyok’s story to life with vibrant description and powerful emotional resonance. The memoir not only explores personal narratives but also educates readers on 20th-century U.S. and Korean history in an engaging style with plenty of interesting personal details. The work allows you to see the real human impact of global politics and conflict through the eyes of its enigmatic and very warm narrator. The memoir stands as a tribute to the resilience of North and South Koreans during the Korean War, expressing gratitude to the United States and the United Nations for their aid but also staying very much focused on Tae-hyok and his love for his country and culture. Overall, Beyond the Border is a unique narrative that enriches our understanding of a pivotal historical period, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice, and I would highly recommend it as a heartfelt homage to individual cultural stories and the preservation of history.