Watch Hyeonseo Lee
“It is ridiculous, the hairstyle he has, everything,” says Hyeonseo Lee.
She is talking about Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea and in her old life, before her defection from the tightly controlled regime, saying such a thing would condemn her and her family to prison or to death.
“I could kill three generations of my family,” she says.
Lee defected at 17, embarking on a perilous journey. Now 34, she has finally written her account of life and escape from the Hermit Kingdom in a new book, The Girl With Seven Names.
The woman was raised in a relatively privileged manner, a middle-class existence because of her stepfather’s job with the North Korean military, but even so she attended her first public execution at the age of seven — a stark lesson in obedience.
Seeing a man hanged under a railway bridge — one of many such public executions that are mandatory for people to see, she says — was only one of the grotesque means of control the regime waged against its citizens.
As in many authoritarian countries, for example, Lee’s family displayed portraits of the ruling family in their home, first Great Leader Kim Il-sung, then his son and heir Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and, later, his son and heir Kim Jong-un. The government gave them a special cloth for cleaning the portraits and nothing else. The pictures had to be the most prominent in any room, hung the highest, perfectly aligned and on a wall containing no other adornment.
“It was genuine (respect) and fear mixed together,” says Lee.
“They had to show they were loyal to the regime in order to survive.”
But people also knew no other life, had no access to information beyond what they were told by the state and dissent was absent from any discourse.
Things changed when famine struck in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At first, Lee was shielded from its effects, both because military ties allowed her family access to food and because of the propaganda of the regime, she says.
The government initiated a wide public education campaign — “Let us eat two meals a day” was the slogan, accompanied by information on how eating less was healthier.
As food distribution worsened and after the death of her stepfather, who had been arrested by military police on suspicions about his business deals and apparently killed himself while in hospital, the intense impact of famine became obvious.
“I saw people dying on the street. I was shocked. If we went near the train station or under the bridge we can easily see those dead bodies everywhere and the smells of decomposing bodies,” she says.
It troubled Lee not just emotionally, but intellectually.
All her education and the propaganda told her North Korea was the greatest country on Earth, its leader could change the weather and her homeland was a beacon of light in a world immersed in darkness.
“I believed we were the most privileged human beings — but they are dying from starvation on the street? It didn’t make sense to me at all,” she says.
When her family moved to the northern city of Hyesan, just across the Yalu river from China, the lies became irreconcilable. Stray signals from China could be captured on her television set and, in a locked room with blankets covering the windows, she would watch and see a different world.
Then there were the lights, twinkling across the river in the Chinese town of Changbai.
“We were suffering severe power shortages every night, but China has brilliant lights at night and even neon signs. I wanted to find out the answer myself by seeing the real life in China with my own eyes and I was very young, naive girl at the time so I was brave. I took the huge risk by crossing the border.”
She did not intend to defect.
One thing I could never handle was being separated from my family. It was very sad; living in South Korea — so close but very far away
The frozen river was narrow near her home and could be crossed with ease. She intended a “sneak visit,” she says, to see China, visit her father’s relatives there and return.
But in China she saw her upbringing had been a lie. For the first time, she heard people speaking openly about the North Korean regime. She heard Kim Jong-un called a “bastard” and the country’s starvation blamed on his failed economic policy.
“It was shocking to me; how can you make fun of our Dear Leader like that?” she says. And at first it was hard to accept, she still wanted to respect her country — a common thing, she learned, for those who have just fled North Korea.
She says now she knows how naive she was, about that as well as how hard her journey would be. Walking across the river was perhaps the easiest part.
In China she lived illegally, moving from place to place, taking on waitressing jobs, dating a policeman for her protection. She changed her identity several times. (She chose the name Hyeonseo Lee when she reached freedom. “Hyeon” means sunshine, she explains, “seo” means good fortune.)
Even when finally living in South Korea, settling in its capital, Seoul, she was tortured by constant thoughts of her mother and brother still in the north.
“(They) suffered a long time in North Korea because of me,” she says. They weren’t sent to prison but struggled under censorship and restrictions, with spies sending reports on her mom’s schedule to officials every day.
“One thing I could never handle was being separated from my family,” she says. “It was very sad; living in South Korea — so close but very far away.
“The farthest place.”
She decided she must try to free her mother and brother. Their escape, however, was not as simple as a walk across a frozen river. Lee was held by a smuggling gang and forced to pay large fees as she tried to arrange their passage.
When her family finally made it across the border into China, they narrowly escaped arrest and deportation. Leaving China, they were arrested in Laos and could not pay the bribe demanded for their release until an Australian man hearing their ordeal went to a bank machine and paid it for her.
They are almost the forgotten people
After that Lee and her family, like many defectors, were silent for a long time, fearing for others still in North Korea.
But in 2013, she decided to share some of her story in a TED Talk — a rare public account of life in the secretive country told directly in English. It caused a sensation.
There have been other accounts, usually mediated by translators. One of the most prominent defectors, Shin Dong-hyuk, told an eye-popping story of being born to two inmates in a notorious prison camp, where he lived, worked as a slave and was tortured until his daring escape.
It was an account he revised this year, however, with an admission he had exaggerated and fabricated parts of his story.
That hurts all defectors, says Lee.
“The original story is good enough without embellishment,” she says. “Western media want to hear very shocking stories … (and) some defectors are exaggerating or making up stories or taking other people’s stories as their own.”
But that should not detract from the real stories of defectors and, more importantly, of those still living in the Hermit Kingdom.
“Millions of North Koreans are … suffering under the dictatorship and not knowing of the reality of the outside world,” she says. “They are almost the forgotten people.”