Walking through the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., Grace Jo remembers a pivotal point in her childhood in North Korea, what she calls ‘the almost dying moment.’
On the brink of starvation, she and her brother burned so hot with fever that they could only find relief on the cold concrete floor of their home in rural North Korea.
Dealing with hunger was a way of life, one in which six newborn mice were seen as the best medicine to stave off malnutrition.
Memories like these keep Jo from having faith in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s push for peace after years of threatening his neighbors and the United States with his nuclear arsenal. He will meet with president Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore in the first ever summit of a sitting U.S. president with a North Korean leader.
“Even though they say it’s peaceful and even though they say they will work more in both countries for developing their good relationship with each other, I don’t think it will benefit to North Korean people directly unless the current regime get completely changed and there is no Kim’s regime more exist in North Korea,” she said.
According to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the population of North Korea is 24 million. As of 2016, only approximately 200 North Korean refugees had been resettled in the U.S.
Now 26 and an American citizen, Jo arrived in the U.S. in 2008 as a refugee, having finally escaped the Kim regime, known for human rights violations deemed “morally reprehensible” by the State Department.
Severe famine in North Korea in the 1990s took its toll on Jo’s family. Her two younger brothers died of starvation, as did her grandmother, whose dying wish for a potato went unfulfilled. Jo’s older sister disappeared. Her father escaped to China to find food. Caught, he was returned to North Korea. He was tortured and starved to death in a North Korean jail.
With her father’s death in 1997, finding food in North Korea became even more difficult. When Jo was six, her mother decided the only hope for her and her two remaining daughters was to forge a new life in China.
Over the course of 10 years, they lived a secretive and transient existence trying to avoid the authorities, but again and again, the family was caught and repatriated to North Korea, where they were tortured.
Their luck turned when a Korean-American pastor raised money to bribe North Korean officials for their release. In 2008, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) rescued the family from China and settled them as refugees in the U.S.
Jo is now a student at Montgomery College in Maryland and works as an assistant in a dentist’s office. She also helps run NKinUSA, an organization her sister founded to help rescue North Koreans from their country and establish new lives.
Dressed in an elegant black suit and matching shoes, Jo seems a world away from her childhood home. But the plight of North Koreans remains close to her heart.
With the meeting between Kim and Trump on the horizon, she said she hopes the struggles of North Koreans are not buried amid perceived progress towards denuclearization and peace.
“The current regime and current system will not give freedom to North Korean people. And because of that, North Korean people still suffer, will die and the history will keep repeat again and again.”