Local woman recounts the harrowing journey from North Korea to living in Northern Montgomery County
The longest Grace Jo ever went without food was 10 days when she was just a child. Without energy, no longer suffering from hunger pangs and with a high fever, she felt certain death was near. All she had consumed for the past nine days was cold water from a nearby river near her home in North Korea.
Finally, her parents returned from their illegal escape into China to find food for their six children.
Earlier, when Jo was five-and-a-half years old, her grandmother happened upon five newborn mice. She grilled them for Jo and her siblings, helping them survive through another bout of hunger while their parents continually crossed into China to bring back whatever food they could.
“How can I explain hunger?” said the Montgomery College student and Germantown resident. “I lived in a house made of wood. In the winter, the wind blew through the house” through all the holes, she said. “We were really cold and constantly hungry, and sometimes we didn’t have the energy to get the wood” to make a fire for warmth and cooking, she said.
While her parents were away, Jo and her siblings scouted the area, finding potatoes, peas and corn that hadn’t made it to harvest. But the competition was fierce, and they often came back with very little.
Winter was the worst time, she said, because nothing was growing.
Often her parents were gone for months at a time. The longer their absence, the more likely it was that they had been caught and sent to prison, said Jo, as she sat outside of the college’s theater building.
Now at age 26, Jo is almost 10 years removed from living in that Communist country; she has lived in Virginia or Maryland since 2008. Her world has taken an amazing turn since fleeing North Korea – the place where two of her siblings died of starvation, her father died after being tortured by North Korean officials and another sibling has not been heard from since she escaped into China.
The family often crossed back and forth across the border by walking or swimming across a small river near their home, a river smaller than the Potomac, she said.
But life in China was not much better. The family was always in hiding, fearful of being found and sent to prison and then back to North Korea. Jo was repatriated twice.
“Of course,” she was beaten, she said with little emotion. Officials used a rubber night stick to beat her bare hands and feet. They went easy because of her age, she said, noting that they broke a wooden chair on her mother and tortured her father so badly that he died while being transferred from one prison to another.
“For more than half my childhood, I lived in fear. We had to run from village to village,” she said in a YouTube video.
After fleeing, her life in North Korea worsened. No school, no money and “the village people are watching us all the time,” she said.
Finally, the family met Pastor Philip Buck, who in 2006, bribed North Korean agents and got Jo and her family out of North Korea. Two years later, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees got the family out of China, sending them to the United Sates as legal refugees. There are “maybe 15, 20” North Korean legal refugees living in the area, she said.
In 2013, Jo became an American citizen and is now taking life sciences classes. She dreams of becoming a dentist. Her days of eating grasshoppers and tree bark are long gone. See my black hair, she asked? It had once been yellow, from malnutrition.
“Who gets food is all decided by the government.” Deaths by starvation, disease and hypothermia are all due to the government, she said emphatically.
Chairman Kim Jong Un’s regime “is horrible.” She would love to see a strong United States gather all the leaders of North Korea into one room and tell them they are now out of power. “Get rid of that regime, just get that one percent of elites. That would be nice and so simple.”
Jo, along with her sister, is active in the organization, North Korea Refugees in the United States, speaking out about her homeland and raising money to rescue North Koreans and help them adjust to their new life.
Today, only her mother and one sibling are alive. “All I have of my family is only memory,” not a single photograph, she said.
America is so different from North Korea. “It is 100 percent, 1000 percent different. Back there, I needed to obey the regime, the elders; whoever told me what to do.”
Here, “It’s up to me to make choices,” she said. “I feel very lucky, and I feel very happy to sit in the class.”