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When freedom is a cup of tea

The 37-year-old North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee on her fleeting tryst with freedom

North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee at Jaipur Literature Festival 2017. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee at Jaipur Literature Festival 2017. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Hyeonseo Lee, in her 37 years, has lived an extraordinarily courageous life that would have broken many people a long time ago. She grew up in the closed and regimented society of North Korea, and at 17, escaped into China, living there illegally for a decade, always under the fear of being reported to the Chinese authorities and being sent back to North Korea. She did get caught by the police once, but by then her Mandarin was so good that she convinced the police that she was not a North Korean. She made her second escape to South Korea, but had to return to China to facilitate her family’s escape from North Korea. She has recorded her story in the book The Girl With Seven Names, and has now started an organization, Tongil, that primarily works towards preventing the rampant trafficking of female North Korean defectors living in China.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

When did you decide that you wanted to write the book?

After I gave a TED talk (on my life story) in the US in 2013, I got an offer from a publisher. But in the beginning I thought I would not write a book. I thought I (would feel) naked revealing my story in a book; I wanted to keep my privacy. Most importantly, by writing this book, I didn’t want my relatives inside North Korea to have a problem. In the end I changed my mind. My life is not only mine. I am telling the story of all North Korean people, it is my responsibility to tell it. But I had to tell the true story but at the same time protect (my relatives’) identity. I am happy about the outcome. It became a New York Times bestseller last August. I feel the decision to write the book was right. Because of this book, so many people know what’s going on in North Korea.

After escaping from North Korea, you lived in China for 10 years constantly under the fear of being discovered. What did that do to you?

The title of my book, The Girl With Seven Names, means that I had seven different lives. For a North Korean defector, life in China is difficult. If we are repatriated to North Korea, (we face) torture, imprisonment and sometimes, even public execution. This is not a joke. But the Chinese government continues to do this favour to the craziest dictator in the world (Kim Jong-un). I did my best to hide by changing my name many times. But I was captured by the Chinese police. But because my Chinese was so good, they thought I was Chinese and released me. That was a miracle.

As North Korean defectors, once we cross the border, we don’t know where to go, and we don’t know how to speak Mandarin. Most women defectors are sold as sex slaves. In China the gender imbalance has driven up the demand for trafficked brides. It happens even today. We have no ID card in China, we have no voice. We are suffering the most abuses in China even at this moment. That is what I am fighting against. When I was 19, I escaped an “arranged marriage". And the first time I found a job, I thought it was a decent job. Then I found out it was a brothel and escaped. Until I saw that, I didn’t realize such a job even existed in this world. In North Korea, we don’t have (such) a job. So, as a female North Korean defector, as a woman who experienced that tragedy, the sex slavery in China, that’s why I started the organisation Tongil (meaning unification in Korean), to bring this issue to the world, to put pressure on the Chinese government.

You lived 17 years in North Korea, then a decade in China and now you are in South Korea. What is home to you, where do you have a sense of belonging?

If you asked me that question last year, I would consider the world as my home, as vague as that sounds. But more and more, I am accepting South Korea as my home. I had a horrible experience last year in China. As a North Korean defector, I had gone to China to give a public speech at Bookworm (a literature festival). It was really dangerous, literally (stepping on) a bomb. The Chinese government will still not accept me as person who has received a South Korean passport. They still look at me as a North Korean defector. I knew that but I went to China. I had to escape China (because of the enormous media attention) the tension was growing so fast. The moment I arrived in South Korea, I realized this is my home, where I don’t have to worry about being repatriated to North Korea, I don’t have to worry about the police, or hide every day. I was completely free, the country was embracing me, accepting me. That reality I realised only last April after the experience in China. That moment I felt South Korea is becoming my home. But I don’t want to verify whether I am from North or South Korean. I just want to say I am Korean. That’s all what I hope to say in the future.

You recently helped your mother and younger brother escape North Korea. How is their experience of life in South Korea different from yours?

At least I experienced some form of capitalism in China for 10 years. My family lived under communism their entire lives. When they arrived in South Korea, they didn’t even know how to use the bank system and ATM, or the subway, nothing. It was a completely alien (life). Then understanding about democracy and freedom, or just earning money, that is really difficult for North Korean defectors. That’s why so many North Korean defectors living in South Korea suffer, and some people even commit suicide.

In communism, we never had any freedom, of movement, of speech, of press. We didn’t even make own decisions for our lives, our future. We were human robots. After we come to South Korea, you have to make own decision about every single thing. For those never used to this society, (they were) completely lost. That decreased their courage, (increased their sense of) alienation, made them depressed. We North Koreans never got proper education, what we learned was propaganda praising the leaders, and fake history. We didn’t learn any important skills to survive in real life.

What is freedom to you?

I lost everything in the past. So sometimes, for me, the very little things are precious. For example, once when I was sitting at a coffee shop in South Korea and having a cup of tea and looking out of the window to the blue sky, I feel this is freedom, I am so happy. I feel did I ever imagine this moment when I was living in North Korea for 17 years? Or when I was hiding in China for 10 years? Did I ever imagine or expect that I would have this cup of tea in South Korea today? Many people will be shocked that having a cup of tea is freedom for me, because many people take it for granted. To me, these simple things are precious.

This freedom I have right now is surreal. I am going to be 37, and I have only had my freedom for eight years. I am more used to the other side of life. So the life I have right now is surreal and I hope it lasts forever. My work, it’s political, against North Korea and China. I have a security problem. I hope I am okay until I die, but who knows?

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