In some ways, I imagine growing up in North Korea is like growing up anywhere else. I had a father and mother who rarely failed to show me love, and my older sister looked after me constantly. I caught dragonflies with friends and waited with excitement for cartoons to come on TV.

Then, in 1995, the worst of the Great Famine descended on the land, and the privileges of my childhood were stripped away.

When I was 12 years old, my father died of starvation. Our house was taken away to repay a debt we owed a family friend. That year, my mother fled to China with my sister in search of food and money. She returned a few months later, alone. She had sold my sister into bride slavery, a common fate for young North Korean refugees. My mother believed it would be a better life for my sister than the one waiting back home.

I don’t know that she even knew what sex trafficking is; most brokers highlight the benefits of being married to a Chinese man. She was hardly the only North Korean who had to make these kinds of impossible decisions. She continued to secretly travel to and from China until she was caught by the North Korean government and put in prison.

With my whole family gone, I lived on the streets. And the possibility of ever being loved started to fade for me. Before I had a chance to decide who I was on my own terms, my identity was defined by others: homeless, orphan, beggar. When I approached people in the food courts in the city markets, they would swat me away like a fly. No one said, “I see how weary and hopeless you must be.”

Look Up

At age 15, I faced a choice: I could either starve like my father, or flee the country and hope to secure a better life outside its fortified borders. ...

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