Defector Hyeon-Seo Lee Spills Details on Life in North Korea’s Secret State: 'Kindness Towards Strangers is Rare'

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The Communist nation of North Korea is infamous both for its brutality against its own people and limiting contact with the rest of the world to maintain high levels of secrecy. However, a woman who defected from that country has spoken out on what life is like in the world’s most oppressive state.
North Korean Defector Lee Hyeon-Seo participating at the Stanford Global Speaker Series 2014 at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Photo: Hyeon-Seo Lee/Facebook

The Communist nation of North Korea is infamous both for its brutality against its own people and limiting contact with the rest of the world to maintain high levels of secrecy. However, a woman who defected from that country has spoken out on what life is like in the world's most oppressive state.

In an exclusive report from Emma Batha of Reuters and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, 33-year-old Lee Hyeon-seo, who defected from North Korea and now lives in South Korea, recalled that growing up as a schoolgirl in North Korea, she was forced to watch executions, denounce her friends for fabricated transgressions and dig tunnels in case of a nuclear attack. She wrote a memoir of her experiences in The Girl With Seven Names, which was published in London on Thursday.

"Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe," Lee wrote. "Nearly 70 years after its creation it remains as closed and as cruel as ever."

According to Lee, North Koreans grew up convinced that they lived in the "greatest nation on earth" run by a benevolent god-like leader who was dearly loved like Santa Claus. She and her family grew up next to the border with China, and her father worked in the military.

"All family life took place beneath the obligatory portraits of North Korea's revered founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il which hung in every home," Batha wrote. "Failure to clean and look after them was a punishable offense."

Lee mentioned that in North Korea, "Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung" had to be thanked first before eating her supper. Any hint of political disloyalty was enough for whole generations of family to disappear quickly.

"Their house would be roped off; they'd be taken away in a truck at night, and not seen again," Lee said.

According to Batha, Lee was personally affected by the state's brutal power. Secret police arrested her father, who was badly beaten and later died under unclear circumstances.  

"Kindness towards strangers is rare in North Korea. There is a risk to helping others," Lee wrote. "The state made accusers and informers of us all."

Batha reported that during the mid-1990s, North Korea suffered a famine that killed an estimated one million people. Lee first learned about the crisis from her mother, who received a letter from a colleague's sister; during that time, she thought North Korea was the world's most prosperous country.

"By the time you read this the five of us will no longer exist in this world," the letter read, adding that the family lied on the floor waiting to die after not eating for weeks.

Lee, who spoke at a book launch at Asia House in London, recalled how the famine made North Korea "a landscape of hell" and that people roamed the countryside "like living dead" and "hallucinating from hunger."

"The smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere," Lee said.

Bathe reported that North Korea blamed the famine on U.S. sanctions imposed on their country. However, Lee later learned that the collapse of the Soviet Union was to blame; it had been subsidizing her country with food and fuel.

"Power cuts became increasingly frequent," Bathe wrote. "At night Lee would stare across the river to the twinkling lights of China and wonder at the contrast with the darkness that shrouded her own city."

According to Bathe, Lee was fascinated with life outside of North Korea after illegally watching Chinese satellite TV. Her curiosity led her to cross a narrow stretch of frozen river one winter night in 1997; although she left North Korea as a prank at 17, it would later turn out to be a defection.

"Don't come back," Lee's mother said on the phone after she tracked Lee down in China.

However, Bathe reported that North Koreans who defected to China also faced the risk of deportation from the Chinese government. Anyone caught defecting would be imprisoned or killed.

"She had many close shaves: she narrowly escaped an arranged marriage, almost became enslaved in a brothel, was kidnapped by a gang of criminals and caught and interrogated by police," Bathe wrote. "Lee managed to persuade the officers she was Chinese, thanks to her mastery of the language and her quick wits."

Bathe reported that Lee eventually made it to South Korea, a country that offers asylum to North Korean refugees. At great risk to herself, she also decided to get her family out of the oppressive country.

"In a daring mission, she returned to the North Korean border to rescue her mother and brother and guide them 2,000 miles through China into Laos and from there to South Korea - a journey beset by disaster from start to finish," Bathe wrote.

According to Bathe, Lee now works as a human rights campaigner in South Korea, highlighting human rights abuses in North Korea. She explained why she chose a different name over ones given to her by birth or those she used in China to evade authorities.

"It is the one I gave myself, once I'd reached freedom," Lee wrote. "Hyeon means sunshine. Seo means good fortune. I chose it so that I would live my life in light and warmth, and not return to the shadow."


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