Beacon of hope

Beacon of hope

North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee uses her fame as a bestselling author and human rights activist to speak out for others who are suffering.

Hyeonseo Lee (Asia Literary Agency photo)
Hyeonseo Lee (Asia Literary Agency photo)

Sitting down with Hyeonseo Lee at a coffee shop in the Jongno district of central Seoul, one can easily understand why anyone who doesn't know her would mistake her for someone from the upper echelons of South Korean life.

Her youthful looks give the impression that she is more than 10 years younger. She is sophisticated in what she wears, insightful and shrewd in what she says and, despite her protestations to the contrary, her English is impeccable.

To anyone passing by the Terarosa coffee shop, our interview subject might seem at first glance to be a prominent businesswoman, or an actress perhaps. But to the many people both Seoul and across the world who have read Lee's international bestseller, The Girl with Seven Names, she is anything but.

Lee is arguably the world's most famous North Korean defector, having escaped to China at age 17. Ten years later, after a series of police interrogations and with forged documents, she was to finally arrive in South Korea. Her story reads like something from a Hollywood script but for Lee, it is her real life.

"Until I escaped my country, until I saw the real world, there was a time where I thought my country was the best country in the world," she tells Asia Focus. "That was what the regime told us. They led us to believe that North Korea was paradise and the outside world was a disaster with people dying on the streets."

Such is the might of the propaganda machine in North Korea that Lee describes not questioning -- at least not at first -- the words that came down from Pyongyang.

"As a kid you would watch public executions. Every North Korean child was brought up in this environment and I was happy because when you are ignorant, you don't know anything of the outside world," she recalls.

"We were completely blinded and deafened by the system. We were used to seeing people killed in front of us, whole families disappearing."

Being raised and brought up in such an environment, your window to the world and its information is completely bolted shut; such conditions would subdue even the most inquisitive of minds.

For Lee, though, it was the famine that hit North Korea in the 1990s that began to plant doubts in her mind. In her book, she recounts the moment she saw a mother lying dead on a railway station platform, a baby crying in her arms, as people walked past, preoccupied with their own problems and tragedies.

"So many people were starving and dying on the streets. It was the first time I realised that the people in my country were suffering," she recalls.

Lee believes that living close to the border that North Korea shares with China, and seeing the constant lights from the towns across the Yalu River, further compounded her increasing confusion and doubt about the validity of the country and its claims.

"Living there made me smart because it made me think that actually something strange was going on."

Not long after she began to have those dangerous thoughts, Lee made the life-changing decision in 1997 to attempt to cross the Yalu River and escape into China. "I wanted to see whether China was real, or whether North Korea was real. I wanted to check with my own eyes."

But that decision, which has ultimately proved so worthwhile, is one she still debates in her own mind.

In The Girl with Seven Names, Lee recounts the heartbreaking moment her mother told her, not knowing of her daughter's plan to cross the border, to come back home safely. That moment gnawed at her for years.

"I love my mum so much, I didn't know that moment would be the last meeting with my mum for 14 years. I absolutely had no idea that it would be that long a separation."

Knowing how hard the long separation would be, and despite how life has since worked out so well, would Lee have gone ahead with her crossing into China?

"If I knew it would be such a long separation -- and I think about this even today -- I would have not crossed the border," she replies.

Throughout her time in China, Lee describes how she would always remind herself: always think back to her mother's face in that last moment.

"People ask me, if I knew the future, would I do it again? My answer is no, I wouldn't. They don't understand the feeling, the hurt of such a long separation."

The affability of Lee is clear to all. A chance encounter with a friend picking up a coffee brings a pause in our interview, and they joke about the prospect of another signed copy of her book. I ask Lee if I could get her anything to drink or eat, which she politely declines, before explaining her addiction to ice-cream after arriving in China and her consequent self-imposed embargo on sweet treats since.

"In North Korea, we only had one type of ice-cream, which tasted like water. But in China, there were so many different varieties, it was like a dream," she says.

"How can ice-cream have so many different flavours? I ate ice-cream every day, it was my rice," she says, adding that it quickly led to weight gain. "No one told me that ice-cream could make you fat!" She now limits herself to only a couple of servings each summer.

She also recalls the astonishment when she found out that she didn't have to turn off the lights or television when night approached, a small freedom but with a magnified impact given the strict measures imposed in her impoverished homeland.

"I could turn up the volume as loud as I wanted, that was freedom to me. Also, seeing all the restaurants outside, seeing KFC, a McDonald's, it was amazing."

SECOND HOME

China was Lee's home for 10 years, and she looks back it at with mixed emotions. On one hand, it was her first foray into the outside world after fleeing North Korea. But equally, China's rigid policy of pursuing and sending back defectors makes it a harsh environment for all of those who seek a new life beyond the borders of their homeland. She recently returned to Beijing, where she has fractious relationship with the authorities.

"Last year I travelled to Beijing to give a speech, which is a very unusual move for a North Korean defector to take, to give a public speech in China."

As demonstrated by the recent assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong-un's half-brother Kim Jong-nam, Pyongyang is not hesitant to silent those who criticise the country for what it is.

"I was essentially risking my life," says Lee. "There a lot of North Korean spies in Beijing and the Chinese government is not on my side."

Even today, and even if someone holds a South Korean passport, China still views those who defected from the North as "illegal economic migrants" and claims grounds, under its domestic laws, to deport them back to North Korea.

"I lived there for 10 years but I had a lot of pain there, but also a lot of memories there," says Lee. "When I arrived at the Beijing Airport I felt so emotional, I started crying. I was thinking, why am I crying?" To her, China still feels like home, as her time in South Korea has been short by comparison.

"I grew up in China and I don't dislike the people of China, I only dislike their government and their polices toward North Korean defectors."

Due to the unsurprisingly heavy traffic on a midweek evening in the centre of Seoul, our interview had started slightly late, and as the café slowly begins to empty, I am keen to ask Lee more about her final part of her story and what has motivated her to pursue a writing and activism role, giving speeches across the world about her life and what has to be done in the future.

As she recounts in her book, after finally escaping and settling in Seoul, there was still the not-so-small matter of the family Lee had left behind in North Korea. Through an assortment of financial transactions and back channels, Lee's younger brother and mother managed to escape to China, where Lee then met them to escort them to Laos, before flying onward to Seoul.

TURNING POINT

After arriving in Laos, the family members were quickly detained by Lao police officials, and since Lee had spent her remaining money on brokers and previous bribes along the journey, it seemed as if they had fallen at the final hurdle.

Suddenly an Australian called Dick Stolpin, after seeing Lee in tears, asked what had happened and how he could help. Hearing her story and predicament, he made a telephone call before taking out enough cash to free Lee's family and the remaining North Korean defectors who had been detained.

When asked why he had helped her, he replied, "I'm not helping you, I'm helping the North Korean people."

"This was the motivation for me, the turning point. It was strange, but it was amazing," Lee explains. She describes that moment, that moment of humanity, as having a profound effect on her. "I was so cold up until that point, I felt as if I was an ice person. But at that moment, I melted." She describes noticing how beautiful the colour of the sky was for the first time, how blue it was.

"Angels are not just in books, they walk among us," the 37-year-old notes.

That moment has set Lee on a noble path since, and it also inspired her to give voice to her anger at the regime in North Korea and its effect on her fellow North Koreans.

"The regime keeps everyone mute, dating back from my grandparents' generation. You can't speak out as everyone knows the result. The regime controls people."

Telling her story, highlighting the injustices still happening in North Korea and raising awareness among the international community have since become a hallmark of Lee's work. A video of a TED Talk she gave in 2013 has gained 13 million views and launched Lee into the international spotlight. "One speech can change a lot, it can spread a message far across the world. I didn't fully understand the power of the internet, it was very surreal."

Lee tells me she is preparing to fly off at the end of the week for further speeches and book talks across Asia, and she firmly plans to keep up the pace of her work.

"I will keep on with the work I am doing now and I want to study and learn more, maybe in America for a master's degree. I want to gain more experience."

For Lee, these efforts are not for retrospective purposes only. She remains acutely aware of the challenges that reunification -- if it ever happens -- will bring and is keen to be as prepared as possible. People in North Korea are slowly awakening, but that they still have no power.

"For reunification, I want to be a useful person when that day hopefully comes. I need to prepare myself as I believe there will be a lot of help and understanding needed," she says.

An individual who has experienced as much hardship as Lee would be forgiven for basking in her well-earned fame and the riches it brings. But as the interview nears its end and we prepare to bid each other goodbye, we touch on the topic of coffee, and of freedom.

"People ask me what my perspective of freedom is," she tells me. "I have lost everything in the past, now I just feel as if it is the small things that are really special: going to a coffee shop and ordering a coffee or tea, for me that is freedom. And I hope that this freedom can last forever."

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