SINGAPORE Grace Jo was born in North Korea and lost most of her family to famine. Her father was killed by the state. Desperate to save her remaining children, her mother defected with them to China, eventually resettling in the U.S.

On the brink of the historic meeting between North Korea and the country she now calls home, Jo spoke with CBS News’ Jeff Glor about her earliest memories.

“I was sitting on the side of the street and we were selling dried fish because at the time we didn’t have rice to eat,” she recalled. “I was just exhausted, tired, no energy.”

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Grace Jo battled starvation before escaping North Korea

CBS News

Like most North Koreans her age, Jo grew up hungry.

In the mid-1990s, famine ravaged the country and millions starved to death. Jo says she ate, on average, one meal a week. It was usually rice, but sometimes it was what they caught on the ground, including baby mice.

“That was the first time you’d eaten in how long?” Glor asked her.

“I don’t even remember,” Jo said.

Her father snuck into China to ask distant relatives for help. But on his return home, he was captured by North Korean authorities and beaten to death.

“My grandmother, she passed away by starvation. My two younger brothers died by starvation,” Jo said.

One of the boys had to stay behind when Jo defected with her mother and sister to China. The trip took months longer than expected, so by the time they sent for him to come join them, it was too late.  

“My mom’s friend was supposed to watch him but kicked him out on the street,” she recalled.

He was only 5, and her experience is still common among North Koreans today, she says.

“Not only my family died — there are hundreds of families they lost their family members,” Jo said.

But Jo survived. Once in China, her family applied for refugee status and resettled in the U.S., and she became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

“I will say my life completely changed after I came to America,” she said.

No longer that starving child, Jo says people who meet her can’t believe she was a refugee. She’s healthy, and so are her mother and sister. Never given a formal education in North Korea, she now works as a dental assistant and advocate.

“I think that’s called freedom,” Jo said. “It’s a very cherished thing for my family and for me.”

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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