North Korean defector hopes for reunification, gives insights into secret regime

Hyeonseo Lee spoke about her book 'The Girl with Seven Names ' at its UK launch at Asia House

Hyeonseo Lee spoke about her memoir 'The Girl with Seven Names ' during its UK launch at Asia House

North Korean defector hopes for reunification, gives insights into secret regime

10 July 2015

By Naomi Canton

A North Korean defector has spoken about her childhood in her native country describing how she saw people starve to death during its four-year famine, those who committed crimes were often sent to prison camps never to return and public executions took place regularly.

Hyeonseo Lee, now 35, who escaped North Korea at the age of 17, has written about her childhood memories, perilous escape and incredible journey in her memoir The Girl with Seven Names (published by HarperCollins on 2 July 2015).

Speaking at her sold-out UK book launch at Asia House, she also spoke about her hopes for reunification of North and South Korea.

“There are many obstacles to reunification but if the two Koreas really want it, nobody can stop it from happening, but right now North Korea does not want reunification and South Korea, especially young people, don’t want it either because of the economic costs,” she said. “There are many obstacles but if we really want to have it, it will happen one day.”

Lee escaped North Korea by entering China illegally in 1997. In 2008, aged 28, she asked for asylum in South Korea where she now lives and is a student and human rights activist who assists other defectors to escape.  The following year she returned to North Korea to help her mother and brother escape.

She told the audience that she still had contacts in North Korea and not much had changed.

“North Korea has of course changed over time but some people think it has hugely changed and there are no people dying of starvation but Pyongyang is not North Korea. You need to see the other parts of the country. The major problems have not changed, even today.  Kim Jong-un is still running the country, there is no access to information outside, the human rights situation has not improved and people can’t leave the country – only technology and fashion has changed,” she said.

She said less people were dying than during the four-year famine (1994 – 1998) when up to 3.5 million people are thought to have died; but people were still dying of starvation. “In my home town there are lots of beggars in the market still,” she said, revealing she had a source in North Korea who sent her regular videos. She said she did not know much about the Public Distribution System (or rationing system) – but to her knowledge it had stopped in 1995.

In conversation with Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld, she reminisced about her childhood growing up in the regime.

“Children would attack cardboard American soldiers and people chanted anti-American slogans as we were taught that Americans were the primary enemy from Kindergarten but we learnt very nice things about the British,” she told the audience. She said North Koreans lived in fear and were unable to trust each other. No one spoke openly about what they felt about the regime as “there were many spies and Government informants walking around.”

“My mother told me many times don’t repeat what you hear at home outside,” she said.

She recalled how her mother told her the walls had ears and she said when she was a child she actually believed “people could hear through the walls.”

She continued: “If someone said the wrong thing the entire family would disappear during the night. Most North Koreans are so scared of being sent to a prison camp as we don’t know what will happen inside.” She was very naive, she admitted. “I did not understand why people disappeared in the night,” she said.

She said one of her distant relatives came to North Korea from China in the 1970s expecting to find a utopia. When he realised in the 1980s that was not the case he tried to go back to China but he got caught by the border guards and was sentenced to 30 years in a prison camp where he died.

She said she grew up with “constant public executions” taking place and watched her first one aged seven. “You could see dead bodies under the bridge near the train station, they were not removed and there was a smell everywhere. It made people feel sick and scared,” she said.

“I remember seeing a man hanging by the neck from the railway bridge.  I did not know what crime he had committed but many people got imprisoned or executed including fortune tellers, defectors, homosexuals, religious people and someone who had killed a cow,” she said, explaining how cows are given great importance in North Korea owing to how much work they can carry out in the farm compared to humans. “You rarely see beef sold in North Korea. Only if you have money you can buy it under the table,” she explained.

“The constant executions were a reminder that we should not do anything to disobey the Government,” she added. “There is no freedom in North Korea: no freedom of the press, no freedom of speech, or religion; you can’t even freely travel between cities.”

She said the people of North Korea had always been led to believe that North Korea was superior to other countries. “I used to see beggars and homeless people on the streets but did not find it strange because we have a social hierarchy. I just thought they were unlucky. A family I knew had nothing to eat for lunch. But at the time I did not understand it.”

Referring to the famine which took place during the reign of Kim Jong-il, she said: “We believed we were suffering only because of American sanctions. I did not realise it was because of our failed system,” she said. “That was the first time I realised people could die from starvation. I thought they could only die in wars,” she said exposing her naivety again.

However, she lived next to the Chinese border and her TV could pick up a few Chinese channels. “It’s illegal to watch them so I would blacken the windows and watch them secretly in my room. I was so surprised to see that products like beer can be advertised on TV. We had only one channel in North Korea and all we heard was state propaganda and slogans. China TV was therefore fascinating for me. I was overwhelmed with curiosity. We had learnt North Korea was superior to China but then that gave me the perfect reason to realise that the propaganda was maybe not true. When I stood at the border I saw the bright vibrant colours of the new world in China,” she said.

Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld, left, and North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee, right

Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld, left, and North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee, right

Similarly she said that North Koreans were led to believe their free public health system was better than in “capitalist countries” such as the USA or South Korea where they have private health systems. She said North Koreans believed people in those countries could not afford to get medical treatment and were “dying in front of hospitals”. But she said the truth was that hospitals in North Korea had no medicines. She said that medicines sent to North Korea from Western charities did not go to hospitals but ended up being sold on the black market alongside fake ones. She added North Koreans had to bribe doctors to get treated.

She recalled how one of her female friends was nearly chosen to be in the ‘Joy Division’ – a group of beautiful girls who are maintained by the head of state for the purpose of providing pleasure to him and high-ranking Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) officials and their families. But her friend was not selected as she was not tall enough, she told the audience.

“These girls can’t return home afterwards as they know too many secrets so they are kept in certain areas and can’t communicate with their friends even when they stop being in the Joy Division when they reach a certain age,” she said. “It is considered a privilege to get selected.”

She also recalled Kim Il-sung’s funeral in 1994 whose death resulted in nationwide grief and a ten-day mourning period. Lee was just a school girl aged 14. “I remember thinking how could God die. I could not imagine it was true,” she said.

She recalls how she was sent home from school and the announcement was made on TV. She remembers having to go to the stadium every day and standing for hours for the funeral in the heat and how everyone was crying. She forced herself to cry in case she was sent to prison. “Noone told me you have to cry, but automatically or instinctively I knew I had to cry,” she said.

“People believed they had a better life under Kim Il-sung. They thought they had a better life under him than South Koreans had had and had respect for him,” she said.

But after the famine, loyalty to the regime lessened and she said when Kim Jong-il died in 2011 “people were faking it [crying] more but they knew how to survive and what to do in front of the camera.

Finally in 1997, just 17, driven by curiosity about China and the outside world, Lee escaped North Korea across the border to China where she changed her identity and pretended to be a Chinese citizen.

“I never imagined I would have to live in the shadows, but I was hunted by the Chinese authorities. I was even caught by the Chinese police once and nearly sent back to North Korea but I convinced them I was a Chinese citizen. I had to change my name constantly so I became the girl of seven names,” she said referring to her book title.

“I was an illegal immigrant in China so I did not know what would happen tomorrow. I could never be sure if I would be safe the next day or repatriated to North Korea. I had lots of lies prepared for if I was questioned,” she added.

“I was able to deal with stress and difficult periods but the one thing I could never handle was being separated from my family,” she admitted.

Hyeonseo Lee gave a revealing account of life in North Korea at the launch of her book at Asia House

Hyeonseo Lee gave a revealing account of life in North Korea at the launch of her book at Asia House

She never celebrated her birthday after that as a punishment to herself. “That was so painful for me so still it’s hard for me to celebrate my birthday today. No one should have to be separated from the ones they love. Most people take the time they spend with family and friends for granted. But many North Korean defectors are separated from their families forever and are painfully aware of how precious the time their time together is. This is an ongoing tragedy we must end. I hope that by sharing my story and my dream for peaceful reunification that some of you can get involved and help bring South Korea and North Korea together,” she said.

After 11 years of hiding her identity and living in fear in China, Lee managed to escape to South Korea where she sought asylum.

But even once there she suffered recurring nightmares as she was separated from her family.

“They had to bribe the authorities every year because of me, so my aim then became to get them out.  I never realised I would be separated from my family,” she said.

She did manage to re-enter North Korea and help them escape in 2009, which is covered in her memoir.

“I was naïve. I didn’t plan to leave North Korea. I was just curious about the outside world. I never realised what problems I would cause my family.

“My nightmares finished the moment I met my family again,” she said.

But despite living in the freer society of South Korea, she still lives in fear. “Now I am public figure so I have to be careful about spies especially living in South Korea. Two years ago my best friend who was a defector turned out to be a spy. It’s hard for me to freely meet people as I can’t trust people,” she said.

She said she did not find writing the book cathartic. Rather it brought back bad memories. She wrote the book with a co-writer who sat with her every day for six months. “There were some parts I did not want to remember but I had to do it to tell the story to the world. I felt naked at times,” she said.

“I often don’t feel I am me because I have changed identity so many times. Before I crossed the border that was me. I miss everything in North Korea – the air, the soil, even the river near the border where I used to stand at every day. I don’t hate North Korea. I hate the regime but lots of innocent people are suffering there. People forget this. It’s not just about missiles.

“I would request the Chinese Government to let North Korean defectors through the border areas and let them freely cross the country. They don’t want to stay in China – they want to go to South Korea. Don’t repatriate them to North Korea,” she said.

“I hope the regime finishes tomorrow. But Kim Jong-un is doing pretty well so I don’t know when the regime will end. I hope the next Government will change things. I can’t hope for much under Kim Jong-un. When he took power we hoped there would be changes since he has studied overseas in Switzerland but after he took over the country became more severe,” she said. “But for the next Government I do have hope. In my guess Kim Jong-un can’t make decisions by himself; he discusses everything with others. Some people in the WPK want reform and some are strongly against it.”

To listen to the full audio of the talk click below:-

To mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, join Al Jazeera journalist Barnaby Phillips on 10 September for a fascinating talk on his critically acclaimed book Another Man’s War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain’s Forgotten African Army which is about the 100,000 African soldiers who were taken from Britain’s colonies to fight in the Burmese jungles during World War Two. For more information click here.