In 1997, aged just 17, Hyeonseo Lee made a fateful decision: she would flee her North Korean homeland. Leaving her family and childhood behind, she crossed the river that flows between North Korea and China – the chosen route of hundreds of defectors and a part of the journey that many do not survive. Once in China, she took refuge with an acquaintance, learned Mandarin as quickly as possible in order to blend in, and did her best to avoid local police, who could have returned her to her homeland. Eventually, Lee made it to South Korea and, after a few years, was able to help her mother and brother escape North Korea as well. Upon meeting them, Lee and her family crossed the China-Laos border, but doing so illegally resulted in her mother being arrested. The assistance of a stranger and his kind donations meant that Lee could pay the necessary fines and bribes for her release.
Today, Lee and her family are safe, secure and living in South Korea. Recently, she published her memoir entitled The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, and next month, she will be a guest speaker at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Indonesia.
Why did you decide to flee North Korea?
North Koreans learn through propaganda that our country is the best in the world. But in the mid-1990s, I realised that our country was having serious problems. I read a letter that my mother brought home from a co-worker’s sister whose entire family had run out of food and was starving and was simply waiting to die. I was shocked that this could go on in my country. Soon I began to notice a lot of beggars and even dead bodies on the streets.
Also, everything was completely dark at night in North Korea, except for a sea of lights across the Chinese border. Since my home was close to the border, at night I could see the brilliant lights and neon signs across the river in China, which looked so amazing compared to the dark streets in my city.
The North Korean authorities tried to block Chinese TV in the border areas. They were constantly watching, but whenever the electricity came I saw a lot of Chinese TV. Although I experienced China indirectly on TV, I thought that if I went to China, I could have everything I wanted, including a big home. I had dreams about that kind of life.
Tell me about your family, what do you remember of your childhood?
I thought my life growing up in North Korea was normal. My happiest memories were probably similar to many other children around the world – playing with my friends. But growing up in North Korea is far from normal. One of my most prominent memories is witnessing my first [dead body] when I was seven years old. I saw a man hanging by his neck under a railway bridge. I will never be able to forget that horrible experience.
The North Korean regime uses fear as a tool of oppression, so we know that we shouldn’t say anything against the regime. The North Korean regime also has an elaborate system of surveillance – neighbours spy on neighbours, and nobody can really trust each other. Even husbands and wives have to be careful what they say in front of each other because if they get divorced there could be big problems. I just accepted the propaganda and the oppression as normal. I thought every country was like North Korea or much worse.
You have mentioned in the past that you cannot remember many details about leaving North Korea? How exactly did you leave the country?
I stated that I cannot reveal many details about how I left North Korea. However, I can reveal that since I grew up near the border, my family befriended some of the border guards. Due to these personal relationships, I was able to cross the border with permission from a border guard who was my friend.
In February, you wrote a story for the New York Times about Shin Dong-hyuk, another North Korean defector who admitted inaccuracies in his bestselling book about his escape from North Korea. Are you ever concerned that people doubt your story?
I am upset if others question my story because of what happened with Shin Dong-hyuk. I have not embellished anything in my story, and I hope people don’t automatically assume that defectors are liars because of the actions of Shin and a few others. There are 28,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, and the vast majority are totally honest. Actually, many defectors have more shocking stories than I do, but they cannot tell their stories due to various reasons, such as protecting their families back in North Korea. Defectors don’t need to lie to tell compelling stories. The truth is enough.
You were able to help your family escape North Korea, and you eventually ended up in Laos after passing through China. But there your family were arrested several times in Laos, and a foreigner helped pay for them to leave the prison. Who was this man?
His name is Dick Stolp. He was an Australian backpacker who saved my family and me in our darkest hour.
My family was imprisoned in Laos for illegally crossing the border, and when he started talking to me I explained the terrible situation. With incredible generosity, he paid the bribes and fines to get my family out of prison, and even gave me money for my ticket home. Amazingly, I was able to reunite with Dick in Australia after he saw my TED talk.
What do you think about China’s policy of returning North Korean migrants back to North Korea if caught?
As a North Korean, I am strongly opposed to China’s policy of repatriating North Korean defectors. Most defectors want to pass through China and arrive in the safety of a free country such as South Korea. China should protect the defectors and allow them to pass through without fear.
What effect do you think your story and those of other defectors have had on the international community’s view of North Korea?
Numerous people have told me that until they heard my speech or read my memoir, they were not fully aware of the extent of the human rights tragedy occurring in North Korea. They knew about the nuclear issue and the dictator, but they did not know that the North Korean regime is the worst human rights violator in the world. As defectors, we can only hope that after having the courage to raise our voices and speak out, people will pay attention and join our fight to bring peace and freedom to the North Korean people.
If there is going to be change in North Korea, how do you think it will happen?
Since outside information is flowing into North Korea, the regime is losing its control over the people’s minds. The North Korean people are slowly awakening to the truth, and I believe that in the long run this will force the regime to reform. Nobody on the Korean peninsula or in the region wants a violent conflict because the consequences would be disastrous.
The international community must make a stand by pressuring China to stop supporting the North Korean regime, and also by forcing the regime to open up to the outside world and stop violating human rights. The North Korean regime cannot survive on its own. With the help of the international community we can pressure the regime to change.
Talk me through writing your memoir…
I wrote the memoir with the help of a native English-speaking author. We had constant interviews and discussion about the text. It was a difficult and painful process at times.
My main goal is to raise awareness in the international community about the plight of North Koreans and to inspire people to become directly involved in helping defectors and changing North Korea. One of the biggest reasons I’ve studied English so intensely is to communicate directly with people in the international community about North Korea.
How did writing the memoir impact your emotions? Was it at all cathartic to write it all down?
It was not cathartic. Unfortunately, it was very painful to relive various memories that I buried deep inside myself. The hardest part was remembering the sadness when I was separated from my mum. I cried myself to sleep on countless nights, looking up at the moon and imagining and hoping that she was looking at the same time.
Are you happy to be at the Ubud festival in October?
I’m so happy and honoured to be attending the festival. I think these literary festivals are very exciting and a great way to meet new people. And I’ve never been to Indonesia, but I heard that it is beautiful, so I’m excited to explore this new land.
What does the future hold for you?
I want to be a voice for the North Korean people and help connect them to the international community. I want to continue working on North Korean human rights issues and helping North Korean refugees, and I especially want to focus on North Korean women’s issues. I believe that our country will be unified one day, so I want to prepare for that time and help North Korean communities during reunification so that we can have a peaceful transition period.