Former North Korean child beggar wins fame as TV chef

Sat Jul 27, 2013 10:42pm EDT
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By Narae Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - 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.   Continued...