WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Walking through the Korean War Memorial in Washington, 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 burnt so hot with fever that they could only find relief on the cold concrete floor of their home in rural North Korea. Another time they were so hungry, Jo said, that they ate six newborn mice found under a stone.
Memories like those keep the 26-year-old Jo from placing much faith in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s bid for peace talks after years of threatening his neighbours 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 between a sitting U.S. president and North Korean leader.
“If the North Korean government doesn’t drop the bombs around their other neighbour countries, that doesn’t mean it’s actual peace for North Korean people,” Jo said in a recent interview. “Inside of North Korea, there are thousands of people that will still die and keep dying in the future. So I don’t really call it a peace treaty.”
North Korea, in announcing last month a suspension of nuclear and missile tests, said it wanted to concentrate on “markedly improving” its socialist economy and the living standards of its people.
Now an American citizen, Jo arrived in the United States in 2008 as a refugee, one of about 200 North Korean refugees who have been resettled here.
Severe famine in North Korea in the 1990s took its toll on Jo’s family. She said 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 in 1997, she said.
When Jo was 6, her mother decided the only hope for her and her two remaining daughters was to forge a new life in China, where they lived a secretive and transient existence for 10 years. They were returned several times to North Korea and were tortured, Jo said.
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) took the family from China and settled them as refugees in the United States.
Jo is a college student in Maryland and works as an assistant in a dentist’s office, but also helps run NKinUSA, an organisation her sister founded to help rescue North Koreans from their country and establish new lives.
With the meeting between Kim and Trump on the horizon, she said she hoped the struggles of North Koreans were not buried in the push to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
“Whatever the leaders decide, I hope the U.S. government can bring up the humanitarian issues and think about the people in North Korea,” Jo said. “The only way helping this generation of North Koreans is to end that regime.”
Reporting by Katharine Jackson; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney