SEOUL - With her flower-print dress and black hair dyed a fashionable light brown, Kim Ha-na does not seem like a former child beggar who risked her life three times trying to escape from North Korea before finally fleeing at the age of 15.
Kim, 25, settled in South Korea in 2005, and has recently gained television fame with a run in the competitive cooking show Masterchef Korea.
She hopes her spell in the spotlight will help her find her father, who she last saw as they tried to flee across the North Korean border into China, with North Korean guards in hot pursuit.
Accounts of her grim childhood melted the hearts of South Korean viewers while her fusion of the cuisine of the two Koreas won over the notoriously finicky cooking-show judges.
She made it to the last six of 6,500 people who applied for Masterchef before being knocked out.
As a child, Kim’s parents defected from North Korea, leaving her effectively on her own. She had to drop out of school and struggled to survive.
For three years she lived as a “kotjebi”, a North Korean term for child beggar, sleeping on the street, scavenging for food and picking pockets. At times, she had to eat whatever she could find, including dragonflies, frogs and even mice.
But Kim’s parents kept slipping back over the border into North Korea to try to rescue her and take her out.
“One time, I had been starving for five days and ran into my dad by chance and literally gobbled down food. The next day, we had to run as fast as we could to flee across the border but I just couldn’t because I had too much to eat the night before.”
She ended up being caught by guards and dragged back to the North. She has not seen her father since then but later succeeded in getting out of North Korea.
The hope of finding her father helped her pluck up the courage to apply for Masterchef Korea.
“Rumours say he already died but I’m still holding onto hope of hearing from, or about, my dad when my story is aired on TV and spreads to North Korea,” she said.
She also wants to banish prejudice in South Korea against North Korean defectors, saying they need fair treatment not sympathy.
“I want to prove that defectors too can compete on an equal playing-field and fare well,” said Kim.
Kim says she dreams of her hometown of Orang in North Hamgyong Province and would love to help people there.
“Back then as a kotjebi, I couldn’t afford to have any dream at all, let alone of becoming a chef. Cooking was just a means not to starve, not something I could have fun with.”
“I long for the day I can make ‘healing food’ for those little child beggars, like I was.”