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My Escape From North Korea: How I Moved On From a Life of Horrors

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I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea and that I escaped from North Korea. Both of these events shaped me, and I would not trade them for an ordinary and peaceful life. But there is more to the story of how I became who I am today.

There’s a quote I once read from Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Sometimes, the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable. I’ve seen the horrors that humans can inflict, but I’ve also witnessed acts of kindness and sacrifice in the worst circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of your humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished and that given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again.

I grew up in Hyesan, a city of 200,000 on the Yalu River, which runs between China and North Korea. It is the coldest part of North Korea, with temperatures plunging to minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit.

My mother and father encouraged me from the start to be proud of who I am. My father sometimes held me in his lap and read me children’s books. The only ones available were published by the government and had political themes. Instead of fairy tales, they were stories set in a place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets. It never occurred to me that they were really describing life in my country.

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