By Taryana Odayar, Features Editor
The first time I met Hyeonseo Lee, I was struck by what a small and diminutive figure she cut. Dressed all in black, with her soft voice and calm, almost serene composure, she looked the part of a doe-eyed ingénue. I wondered how someone who looked as though a gust of wind might blow her away could, at the age of 17, traverse 2,000 miles across China to South Korea, escape an arranged marriage, enslavement in a brothel, being kidnapped by a gang of criminals, and then 14 years later, commit the unthinkable by doing it all over again as she travelled back to the North Korean border to save her family.
Almost as if to answer my unspoken question, Hyeonseo turns around and looks at me, and with a steely glint in her eyes and an even-toned voice, says, “I may not be smart in Maths or Science, but I am tough and know how to survive.” Hyeonseo’s story is one of a daring and harrowing escape, set in motion by an act of simple teenage inquisitivity as she crossed the frozen Yalu river bordering China and her hometown Hyesan one Winter day, just to see what life was like on the other side of the river. Her brave and inspiring account of escape from the hellishly brutal clutches of the Kim regime, is detailed in her recently published memoir, “The Girl with 7 Names.”
(Q) When you were very young, you had been told that your country was “the best on the planet”. When did you realise that this was a rose-tinted version of the ‘Hermit Kingdom’?
Until the moment I escaped the country and crossed the border, I didn’t know. I didn’t know we were suffering under the Dictatorship, or that we’re one of the most horrible countries in the world. I still believed it was a paradise; the best country. But the reason I crossed the border is because I found out that maybe my country is not the best. But I still didn’t know we were brainwashed. I watched Chinese TV secretly at home because I was living right next to the border, while other North Korean people didn’t have a way to see it. So from Chinese TV, China should have looked worse than North Korea, because we were told we were the best. But you can’t compare – we looked worse than China and I thought, Wow, what is this? Is it propaganda TV for us or is it real? But I felt somehow that it was real and not fake. That’s why I wanted to see the real truths with my own eyes.
(Q) You’ve said that Kim Il-Sung, the Great Leader, was considered to be like Santa Claus – could you explain that comparison?
From when we were 5, from when we were very young in Kindergarten, the propaganda started. They told us a whole lot of bullshit. Right now I’m just shocked that I believed everything, but living in North Korea, which is so cut off from the outside world; what you hear, what you see, everyday, are the same ridiculous things. So you do believe that it is real in the end, because there’s no comparison. We didn’t know that there was another life which existed in this world. That’s why still not only North Korean kids, but also adults, are brainwashed – that’s the reason. They said that Dear Leader killed enemies when he was 5 or 6, and that he was shooting guns and riding horses. Kim Il-sung was riding horses, Kim Jong-il knew how to drive when he was 5. Then with Kim Jong-un, the current dictator, they started the propaganda again, saying he started driving when he was 3. Its even crazier right now. He killed all Japanese enemies when he was 5, our Dear Leader. And then he just crossed the rainbow and killed the enemies. So I thought the rainbow was a bridge when I was young, and that I could also cross. And in the end I found out as I was getting older, that its not an actual bridge, and I realised, he (Dear Leader) must be God. He can do many supernatural things that a human being can’t do.
(Q) Are North Koreans brainwashed by the regime’s propaganda or have they realised what’s going on inside and outside the country?
This time I was on a book tour through European countries for many months, and what I found when I met those people in European countries was that they said they knew we suffered under the Dictatorship starting from 1940s or 50s. They said they knew that the regime was trying to brainwash us and it was all propaganda – they knew about that. But the difference is with us, we don’t know that its propaganda – we don’t know what brainwashing even is. And the reason we don’t know is because we can’t go outside the country, we don’t see the world. And then we are not allowed to have passports, we don’t have TV. I mean, we only have one channel. Only one channel. That’s why when I went to China I was so shocked that there were even local TV channels. I thought, How is this possible? We only had one channel, and not only were we not allowed to move outside the country, but even domestically we are not freely allowed to leave because we have to have travel certificates.
So not only do we not know what is happening in the outside world, but we also don’t know what’s happening in the next cities or provinces. So we are completely ignorant. So what we do in our daily lives, everything we do, we think of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. On the TV channel, they are on from 5 to 11 or 12pm. And all the news talks about is about Dear Leader. In all the citizens’ interviews they talk about how they want to be loyal to Dear Leader. That’s all. So everyday what I heard from the TV was Dear Leader’s name a thousand times. I thought that was the news. And then when I skipped the country and when I was living in South Korea, I was shocked that news was all about the outside world and what’s happened. Mostly not really great things, but things that really mattered, and each night they were talking on the news, about things including murders. So I felt, Wow, this is exactly news – I didn’t know this was news. All this time I thought this old phrasing “Dear Leader” was the news.
(Q) No one in North Korea has passports?
Believe me, more than 99 per cent of North Koreans, they haven’t even seen what a passport looks like. They certainly don’t know what a Visa is.
(Q) You saw your first public execution at the age of 7. Do you remember why the man was executed?
The first one I saw was a hanging. I don’t remember what the crime was because I was so young. Usually for public executions there’s a trial first, and the government people are there, and they tell us what the crime is. All I remember was seeing the man in front of me dying – he was hanging by his neck, his whole body crumpled. It was really shocking. I didn’t know at the time what a public execution even was. All I remember at the time was that there were so many people watching, but nobody said a word. It was really silent. The criminal – well victim; at that time we believed he was a criminal, can’t say a word because their mouth is stuffed with some material. All I remember is everybody not talking, and all their faces looked dark. I was so small and I was so scared that I looked around at the others to see their reactions. They were all stone-faced.
Later when I went back home I found out from my mom that it was a public execution. I saw other public executions – there were tons of public executions. That doesn’t mean we go to every public execution, but one time I went for a public execution during the famine. It was a man I knew, who was really popular. He was killed with several other people together, but the reason he was killed was because he was a smuggler. Its true he was a smuggler, because living there then, my family smuggled too. But thats why he was killed. And there was a human trafficker – maybe he helped some girls skip the country, so he was killed because of that. In North Korea it is considered very serious because the regime doesn’t want people to leave the country.
People like me are spreading the truth, and damaging the regime’s image. Sometimes when they kill people, the bullet doesn’t go in the right direction towards the head, so the brains and blood are spread on the street, on the ground. Especially if its Winter, we have snow, which is disgusting because the white snow makes it more visible. We just grew up with that kind of violence. And all the time we even practice killing somebody, killing Americans – that was our first goal; how to kill Americans. So we practiced how to kill them. All the hateful and violent things were what we learned.
(Q) You narrowly escaped arranged marriage, were almost enslaved in a brothel, and you were kidnapped by a gang of criminals. Could you just talk about these experiences and how you managed to cope?
I don’t have trauma from the experiences I had, because I didn’t suffer for years or months. Once I found out something was wrong, I just did my best to escape from the situation. So the prostitution story, I have allowed my mind to forget it for many years, because it is not a happy memory. If I think about those in my daily life, I can’t continue normal life. So what I learnt from Doctors was that the human mind tends to forget those memories. I erased them, especially the sexual slavery and prostitution memories. So even though I can’t erase the gangster story because it happened when I was meeting my brother after many years, the prostitution I have completely erased from my memory. Right now, I think that it’s a tragedy and that a normal human being can’t have that kind of experience. But I’ve always lived my life with a positive mind. Because although its a tragedy, by trying to overcome those situations I learnt how to survive. Maybe I’m not smart, or I’m not a genius in Maths or studying, but I am a master in how to survive life.
(Q) Your book is called “The Girl With 7 Names” – could you explain why you had to change your name so many times?
Everybody has one name – that’s a fact. But actually when I was in North Korea I had two different names already. So in the past I didn’t think that it was strange. But right now I think that I had so many different names and all my life it was like a roller coaster. From the moment I changed my name twice in North Korea, maybe my life and my fate changed, and not in a good direction. I’ve always had that kind of feeling. Because of my family background I changed my name twice, and then again after I escaped to China. In China it was a brilliant and new world. I just can’t compare it with North Korea. I thought China was paradise at the time, because China was the only other country I had seen in my life. And I thought this brilliant new world was for me – they were ready for me.
But soon I found out it was for everybody in this world, but not for defectors. Its for everybody in this world, but not for us – not for me. I found out that even today the Chinese government are doing the same thing – they are trying their best to repatriate North Korean defectors back to North Korea. They know that defectors will be imprisoned, tortured and sometimes even executed, but they keep sending the defectors back. I have this horrible experience of my friend who just disappeared one day. I didn’t know what happened – she wasn’t answering and we didn’t live together. But many months later I actually found out she was repatriated back to North Korea. We always tend to believe if someone has Cancer, we think that’s not for me, and this won’t happen to me, right? Same thing – I thought that this fate is for other defectors – maybe not for me. But it really did happen to me.
I was interrogated not in front of one or two policemen, but I was interrogated in front of so many – I don’t know the exact number but I think it was minimum twenty, maximum thirty, in a big conference room. I was lucky I could escape from this at the time because I was convincing them that I was a Chinese citizen, and at the time my Chinese language skills were very good, so they couldn’t imagine that I was a North Korean defector. So because of this horrible experience, being caught because somebody reported me by my name, was why I had to change my name so many times to protect my identity. That’s why when I came to South Korea and found real freedom in 2008, I though that I could use my real name. So I got my real name, I used my real name for six months in South Korea, which is Park Min-young, but even that isn’t actually my real name – it is made for the book. I can’t reveal my real name; that would kill me – its suicide. And then I realised South Korea is still not safe for defectors. There were spies, and the spy issues were always never-ending. And there were fake defectors; they had defected and were sending information to the North Korean regime.
So it’s a really messy situation. The last name I changed to (Hyeonseo Lee) was not for myself. The previous six names were for me, but the last name I changed was for my relatives and my family inside North Korea, because I wanted to protect them. I didn’t want the North Korean regime to find out that I came to South Korea, because that would mean them killing my family, or that they would be sent to political prison. Living in South Korea or China means that the punishment is hugely different – because South Korea was considered to have divided the country, its considered the huge enemy country. That’s why I had to change my name again. That’s why I’ve got seven names. And I hope that this will be my last name.
(Q) And the name you use now, “Hyeonseo Lee”, which is the name you chose once you’d found freedom – why did you choose this name?
I’ve had a very difficult life, so at least this name is comforting to myself. “Hyeon” means “sunshine”, because I’ve been living in the darkness for many years. That’s why I wanted “sunshine” because I don’t want to live in the darkness anymore. “Seo” means “luck”; good luck or lucky, so I just hope all the luck comes to me and that there will be no more hardships in my life. And people say, actually the name worked for you – right now you have a really brilliant life, with a lot of luck. But thats like saying maybe if everyone changes their name then they can all have a brilliant life.
(Q) Your home was right next to the Yalu river bordering China. Why didn’t your family ever make plans to escape? What held them back?
At the time, North Korean life was not that bad. Many people ask why we North Korean people don’t try to escape, but the border situation makes it so hard to escape. In the past, we thought our country was pretty normal, but we had a big famine from 1990s, with people dying. So since then people started escaping the country. So even living next to the border we never thought of escape. But as more and more time went by, I could see that the towns on the Chinese side were becoming better, and looking better, and we were going more and more into the dark. At night we didn’t have any lights while they had brilliant lights. So everything changed as time went by, and in order to not die in North Korea from the hunger, many people fled the country. But people ask themselves, whether they die in North Korea or in China when they cross the border – what’s the big difference? That’s why they risk their lives – to just survive.
(Q) Kim Jong-Un has tightened border control since coming into power. What are the changes he has made and is it more difficult to escape because of this?
I really hate talking about this because I really hate this situation. Kim Jong-un is insane – he’s crazy! I thought that the border situation during Kim Jong-il’s period was more difficult, and that he was the worst dictator in our history. But after I saw this third dictator, I realised he’s crazier than his father. In the past, many defectors escaped the country. In 2008 when I came to South Korea, there were 150 defectors arriving in South Korea per week – a lot. But this decreased by more than 50 per cent. That just proves that the border is difficult to cross. At least in the past, they didn’t kill North Koreans who crossed the border. They released the dogs – the military-trained dogs, and that was horrible too. But right now, after Kim Jong-un took power from 2011, they started killing whoever crossed, even during the daytime. And right now near my hometown, there is a riverbank, and they are building a wall there. Its like the Berlin wall to me. In the past, when I opened the door, I could see beautiful views; China, beautiful mountains, and the riverside. The Chinese people often came for picnics there. And right now when we open the door I can imagine the view; just dark concrete blocking the whole window. Isn’t it crazy? Its like they’re making a real prison. Earlier we were living in a virtual prison, but now they’re making a real prison.
(Q) Would you like Kim Jong-un to read your book? And if so, what could he learn from it?
I don’t think he’s going to read it, but maybe someone will skim through the book, because the regime is always monitoring me and the defectors and what we are doing. Opening up the country is the best way to help North Koreans, but he’s not willing to do it. But at least he should remove the travel restrictions. What people need right now is to be free, not rice or Aid. Of course they need that but that’s not the priority for North Korean people. As long as they have freedom, as long as they can freely travel outside and interact with the international community; that’s the best gift for the North Korean people. Why not give gifts to your people? The gift of freedom? The regime has everything and they can see the people are suffering under them for three generations. Don’t they think that’s already enough? How long do they think they can keep this up? In the end, people are going to find out the regime’s lies.
(Q) What do you think about the possibility of future reunification?
I believe that its going to happen in my lifetime and that’s why I’m doing this work – to make it happen quicker. By killing so many officers, Kim Jong-un is showing that the regime is unstable and won’t last as long as he’s expecting. It doesn’t mean that the regime is going to collapse and we are going to have a reunification. But history has shown that it is usually someone close to the dictator who has great power who makes the change. The regime wants to keep the power and doesn’t want to change, but there are people who want change. So we can only hope for those people who want to make a change.
(Q) When you were younger a fortune teller had said that you would leave the country one day – do you find it ironic that you’ve fulfilled her prophecy?
At the time I thought she was bullshitting. I was thinking, maybe it means I will marry someone far from my hometown – it could be Pyongyang. So we interpreted it as I could go a long distance away, like Pyongyang.
(Q) On that Winter day when you crossed the frozen Yalu river to China, you phoned your mother and her first words to you were, “Don’t come back”. What did you feel when she said that, and what was it like re-uniting with your family 14 years later?
Even though I was away from my family for over a decade, I was talking to my mom over the phone from the early 2000s, after 5 years of separation. Even though we didn’t see each other’s face, we spoke to each other so many times. So when we finally saw each other’s face, we didn’t need any words. We were only crying and hugging each other. At the time we reunited we had to pretend we didn’t even know each other because even the Chinese taxi-driver could tell the Chinese police. But what I noticed was her face. When I left the country she was really young, and when I saw her again she was really old, and I was really sad to see that. All my memories of her were from 1997, and she didn’t have wrinkles or anything. But when I met her later, she had wrinkles and it was really sad how much she had changed.
(Q) You’ve said before that due to the conditions in North Korea growing up, that even today you find it difficult to say “I love you” to your mother?
I hate that. I can’t say it – it is the easiest thing to say. But right now we have the emoticon function on the phone, so I can send hearts, but I can’t say “I love you”, I can’t say “South Korea is my country”. Which is so strange. The regime made me like that. What we learnt all the time was to criticize each other. We had self-criticism lessons which is crazy, and we grew up in that kind of environment. We were never taught to show kindness between friends or to give people compliments. That’s why now when so many South Koreans or even Westerners kiss with their mouths, when I see that, I think, This is so ridiculous. We never experienced this. That’s why even for me to give a good compliment, its hard. Right now I can do it but words like “love”; I used to think only men could use them.
(Q) You’ve said before that, “North Korea is still my homeland, my country”. Would you like to return one day?
Yes, because I love my country. To me, North Korea is not the Kim regime’s country; it is for 25 million people. Many people are shocked that I love the country and want to go back; they ask me, ‘How could you want to go back?’. The dictator has taken the country from the people, and that’s why I want to remove the dictator. There’s a lot of need because it will be chaos, so that’s why I am for reunification, and that’s why I want to go back there, to help other North Koreans.