A North Korean defector’s fight to raise awareness for those still oppressed by the Kim regime
North Korea is largely a mystery to anyone beyond its borders. Tidbits of news trickle through to the outside world, often details and happenings that seem absurd in the abstract: The people believe their Dear Leader Kim Jong-un doesn’t need to use the bathroom (as demonstrated in the dangerously insensitive comedy The Interview), or videos of the intricate choreography of the Mass Games, or that Dennis Rodman is a friend of Kim’s, or the recent news that Kim is changing the time zone to be a half-hour different. In reality, the country has been one of the worst places to live in the world since the rise of Kim Il-sung at the end of the Korean War, wracked by famine and drought and systematic viselike governmental oppression by Kim and his descendants, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. Neighbors are encouraged to rat each other out to the bowibu (the secret police of North Korea), and dissidents are sentenced to public executions while their families are sent to the gulags.
Hyeonseo Lee knows the real North Korea all too well; she witnessed her first public execution as a young girl, and lived through the cataclysmic famine of the 1980s, which claimed the lives of approximately 330,000 citizens. Lee herself saw people dying in the streets, emaciated beyond help. Just after her 14th birthday, her father was beaten when the bowibu accused him of “bribery and abuse of position.” He would later die in the hospital. After Lee’s father’s death, her mother was forced to earn money by selling smuggled foreign goods on the black market. Despite all this, Lee loved North Korea, having been raised to believe that the Kims were gods, and that North Korea was the greatest country in the world.
Photo courtesy William Collins
Lee defected in 1997 at the age of 17—not out of necessity, but because she harbored a deep curiosity about the outside world. Once she had tasted the freedoms beyond North Korea’s borders, however, she realized that she could never go back. She embarked on a Homeric journey through China, subsequently prying her mother and brother out a few years ago, a tale she has recounted in a new book, The Girl With Seven Names (William Collins). It’s the latest step in her crusade to raise awareness for the oppressed people of her home nation, having given a TED talk detailing her escape that has received over four million views since 2013, depositions in front of the United Nations and the U.S. Committee on Human Rights, and appearing on Now On My Way to Meet You, a popular South Korean talk show featuring North Korean defectors sharing their experiences.
“If the North Korean people acquired an awareness of their rights, of individual freedoms and democracy, the game would be up for the regime in Pyongyang,” she writes in her book. “The people would realize that full human rights are exercised and enjoyed by one person only—the ruling Kim. He is the only figure in North Korea who exercises freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, his right not to be tortured, imprisoned, or executed without trial, and his right to proper healthcare and food.”
I meet Lee in a hotel lobby near the airport in Los Angeles, where she is visiting to speak at a breakfast for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. She is fashionably dressed, her hair done in the latest South Korean style. She tells me about the all-you-can-eat BBQ she had in Koreatown the night before with her husband Brian Gleason, an American-born international relations graduate student at a South Korean university. But the small talk and elegant appearance belie Lee’s fierce interior. “I want to assassinate Kim Jong-un,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Actually, I said to some people, ‘Why doesn’t America send assassins to North Korea?’ I desire for that. I really want to hear one day when I wake up, ‘Oh, Kim Jong-un was assassinated last night.’ How amazing.”
She is half-joking, of course. Kim Jong-un’s removal from power is, obviously, an endgame, but in the interim Lee acts as an advocate for both North Korean defectors and citizens. She is active in ongoing attempts to deprogram brainwashed North Koreans. “The main [tactic] is getting the defector families [to engage with family members still in North Korea],” she says. “There are many defectors living in China, United States, and South Korea trying to connect with family members on the border [through smuggled cellphones]. They don’t know if what they hear from the outside media or [smuggled] South Korean dramas is true or not, but they can believe from their defector family members what they tell [them] about the outside world. So that’s the main truth; families do not lie [to each other].”
She implores the international community to put pressure on those countries unsympathetic to defectors—in particular, China—through diplomatic measures that will affect policy change. As described in her book, Lee herself escaped through the border of her hometown Hyesan into China, where she hid her identity for nearly 10 years (hence the Seven Names), knowing that if she slipped and the Chinese government discovered she was a refugee, she would have been repatriated to North Korea. There, she likely would have been killed, and her family severely punished. “By sharing my story, I hope it inspires many people around the world to get involved in helping raise awareness for North Korean defectors, or people living in North Korea,” she says. “Furthermore, what I’m expecting is, people are urging their governments to put pressure on China, to [make] them stop supporting the regime. Which is impossible, maybe. China will never give up. North Korea, right now, they are in a very perfect position for China, so China doesn’t want North Korea to change or collapse. That’s why I want to raise awareness; then maybe China has to change, because of all the pressure.”
China has a vested interest in propping up North Korea. If North Korea were to collapse, refugees would stream into China, causing chaos, and if China were to cut ties, they would risk war with the militarily quarrelsome nation. That being said, efforts to mount pressure on China have resulted in small victories. “Two or three years ago, people started protesting in front of the Chinese embassy in South Korea to get them to stop deporting North Korean defectors, because the Chinese government, they clearly know that defectors after repatriation, they will be killed, or they will be imprisoned, or they will be tortured,” says Lee. “Then [South Korean] President Park Geun-hye, she even asked [Chinese] President Xi Jinping to stop repatriating defectors. So, they didn’t repatriate some at the time; they sent them to South Korea. They rarely have ever done that, so that’s why it’s a very big change to me.”
After her book tour, Lee says she may move to the United States she was indoctrinated to hate when she was a child, laughing, saying that she will become an “American dog.” The South Korean government has her on high alert—she speculates that North Korea officials have read The Girl With Seven Names, and are attempting to ascertain her actual identity so they can target her family. It’s also perfectly plausible that North Korean spies could infiltrate South Korea to exact revenge. “In 2013, after my TED Talk, the South Korean government asked me if I needed bodyguards,” she says. “I kindly rejected, because if the North Korean regime wanted to kill me, no matter how many bodyguards I had, they could. They have trained spies or snipers. That’s why I said, ‘If they really want to kill me, they will, so I want to enjoy my life.’ But having bodyguards is uncomfortable—I don’t have a private life. But [with the book], I feel extra [attention from North Korea], so when I go back to South Korea, maybe I will ask [for bodyguards]. But I don’t want to say, ‘I’m scared,’ because that’s what they want to hear, actually. So I say, ‘I’m not that scared.’”
She smiles charmingly, waving away the worry of assassination like a hard-charging political leader. The book’s release seems to have instilled in her a resolve; she knows that writing the book means there’s no turning back.
Someday, she says as we part, she hopes to see reunification, so the families on both sides can meet again. “North Korean defectors, we can’t have both; you have to choose [between freedom and family],” she says. “For me to have this freedom, I paid a huge price. I had to give up all the memories of my childhood, all my best friends in North Korea, all my aunts and uncles. But I was very fortunate: at least I could meet my [mother and brother] five years ago. Other defectors, there’s no chance to meet their families. Why can’t we have both—what other people in this world have? To me, meeting family, as a human being, that’s a fundamental thing to have.”