It is a government’s job to take care of its people. Whether it’s a king, a queen, a president, or a prime minister, it is the duty of those in power to make sure that citizens are allowed the rights and privileges of anyone else.
This is the story of a woman whose country’s ills as a whole adversely affected her and her family in ways that we in the Western world could never understand. It’s also about the incredible strength of will required to lift one out of such a place….
Growing up Starving
Grace was like most children her age. She played outside, she did her chores, she loved her siblings, and she listened to her parents. And like most children in her region at that age, Grace also grew up hungry. This was mostly due to the fact that she grew up in one of the most impoverished places in the world, North Korea.
It began with the Korean War, the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union that was fought in the North and South of Korea. When the dust settled, there was no clear victor but the country remained forever divided. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea has slowly transformed themselves from a communist nation to one ruled by a corrupt dictatorship…
Even today, decades after Grace was a child in impoverished post-war North Korea, the nation is one where people struggle to survive every day. Of course, the government that runs the country would have you believe that this is not the case. Their largest cities are full of ornately built train stations, public roadways, public parks, and supermarkets, all of which are basically abandoned.
This is because most of the populace can’t afford to live there. Indeed, most of the populace can’t even afford to eat and in the mid-1990s, when Grace was a child, famine ravaged the country. Millions of Koreans were starving to death and those who didn’t die suffered greatly from malnutrition. Grace Jo and her family were among them…
The One Meal
Yes, despite the outward impression of North Korea as a thriving example of the beneficial nature of Communism, the people of the nation were suffering. Grace Jo and her family were so poor that they ate, on average, one meal a week. It was usually rice, but sometimes they couldn’t get any rice…
Long Time Between Meals
If the family couldn’t find any rice for dinner, they’d rely on the kindness of their equally impoverished neighbors. When that didn’t work, they had to try and catch wildlife to feed upon. Of course, thousands of others were doing the same. That meant that the “game” the Jo family would rely on was far less appetizing than a wild rabbit…
Make Ends Meet
If they didn’t find anything else to eat, the family would catch mice up from the floor and cook them. It wasn’t much, but wretched as it was, at least it was food. Other times, Grace and her siblings would sit along the sides of the road selling dried fish, a meager meal in and of itself, so that they could buy rice.
Days and weeks passed, Grace, her brothers, and her sister were all weak from exhaustion and malnutrition. Soon enough, her relatives succumbed one by one to the starvation. First was her grandmother, then her two younger brothers. Grace’s father looked on in horror. There was nothing he could do to help, but perhaps someone could…
With no other options, Grace’s father snuck into China to find help. He had some distant relatives there who might be in a better position to send them food. He returned home but was captured by the North Korean authorities before he could give his family the good news he had received.
Her father was killed by the state soon after: beaten to death for daring to try and save his starving family. Desperate to save her remaining children, Grace’s mother did the only sensible thing she could do. She packed up the kids and their meager belongings and followed her deceased husband’s path into China. She couldn’t take everyone though…
Unfortunately, Grace’s mother could only risk taking her and her sister into China with her. Grace’s brother had to stay behind for their own safety. The trip was long and arduous, and for three already starving people, was a very slow one. All in all, it took months longer than they had originally expected it too.
Grace thought back to the day they left, when her five-year-old brother had to stay behind and stay with one of her mother’s friends. “My mom’s friend was supposed to watch him,” she explained “But she kicked him out on the street…a boy of five.” By the time they arrived in China to send word, it was too late…
Grace’s five-year-old brother, like her other brothers, and so many other North Korean children, even today, had died cold, hungry, and alone. Her family’s experience and loss is not unusual in the country and certainly not amongst people of her generation. But with the losses came strength, and the Jo family’s journey was far from over.
Grace and her mother and sister survived their ordeal and built a new life for themselves in China. Still, they kept looking for something better. China was just as impoverished and they wanted to find a place where they could truly be free. The obvious choice was the United States, but it wouldn’t be easy…
While they were living in China, the Jo family applied for refugee status and eventually resettled in the United States. Grace herself became an official U.S. citizen in 2013. Her family’s dreams had finally come true. Though she was given no formal education in North Korea, Grace ended up getting a job as a dental assistant and an advocate.
Grace Jo is a healthy woman now, as are her mother and sister. They are no longer a wretched, starving group of refugees, but a happy, well-adjusted family and people can’t believe when they tell them what they’ve gone through. Still, the lessons of her painful childhood continued to inspire her, even in this new place…
This story comes on the brink of the historic meeting between North Korea and the United States. There’s no doubt that it’s a delicate time for both countries and that much hangs on this meeting, but it’s important to understand the stories of the people who came from these places, especially now.
So Many Lost
Grace Jo, of course, had some words to say about the situation and the dictator who is currently running North Korea under the auspices of a democracy. “Not only my family died,” she began “There are hundreds of families that lost their family members.” But rather than dwell on the past, she has tried to move on…
“I think that’s called freedom,” said Grace Jo “It’s a very cherished thing for my family and for me.” This brings me back to my point from earlier, that every being in this world deserves the right to the basic essentials and that any government, by refusing to grant people those rights, are robbing from the people.
To close out, North Korea hasn’t exactly been known for its consideration of Human Rights. Indeed, Human Rights Watch describes North Korea as “one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world” and has reported that the government is guilty of various offenses, including but not limited to: Extermination, Enslavement, Imprisonment, Torture, and Persecution. Food for thought.