Hyeonseo Lee: My escape from North Korea
February 28, 2013
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee thought her country was “the best on the planet.” It wasn't until the famine of the 90s that she began to wonder. She escaped the country at 14, to begin a life in hiding, as a refugee in China. Hers is a harrowing, personal tale of survival and hope -- and a powerful reminder of those who face constant danger, even when the border is far behind. Hyeonseo Lee
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee thoght her country was the "best on the planet." It wasn't until the famine of the 90s that she began to wonder. She escaped the country at 17-years-old to begin a life in hiding as a refugee in China. Hers is a harrowing, personal tale of survival and hope -- and a powerful reminder of those who face constant danger, even when the border is far behind. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I was little,
I thought my country was the best on the planet,
and I grew up singing a song called "Nothing To Envy."
And I was very proud.
In school, we spent a lot of time
studying the history of Kim Il-Sung,
but we never learned much about the outside world,
except that America, South Korea, Japan are the enemies.
Although I often wondered about the outside world,
I thought I would spend my entire life in North Korea,
until everything suddenly changed.
When I was seven years old, I saw my first public execution,
but I thought my life in North Korea was normal.
My family was not poor,
and myself, I had never experienced hunger.
But one day, in 1995, my mom brought home a letter
from a coworker's sister.
It read, "When you read this, all five family members
will not exist in this world,
because we haven't eaten for the past two weeks.
We are lying on the floor together,
and our bodies are so weak we are ready to die."
I was so shocked.
This was the first time I heard
that people in my country were suffering.
Soon after, when I was walking past a train station,
I saw something terrible
that I can't erase from my memory.
A lifeless woman was lying on the ground,
while an emaciated child in her arms
just stared helplessly at his mother's face.
But nobody helped them, because they were so focused
on taking care of themselves and their families.
A huge famine hit North Korea in the mid-1990s.
Ultimately, more than a million North Koreans
died during the famine, and many only survived
by eating grass, bugs and tree bark.
Power outages also became more and more frequent,
so everything around me was completely dark at night
except for the sea of lights in China,
just across the river from my home.
I always wondered why they had lights but we didn't.
This is a satellite picture showing North Korea at night
compared to neighbors.
This is the Amrok River,
which serves as a part of the border
between North Korea and China.
As you can see, the river can be very narrow
at certain points, allowing North Koreans to secretly cross.
But many die.
Sometimes, I saw dead bodies floating down the river.
I can't reveal many details [about] how I left North Korea,
but I only can say that during the ugly years of the famine
I was sent to China to live with distant relatives.
But I only thought
that I would be separated from my family for a short time.
I could have never imagined
that it would take 14 years to live together.
In China, it was hard living as a young girl without my family.
I had no idea what life was going to be like
as a North Korean refugee,
but I soon learned it's not only extremely difficult,
it's also very dangerous,
since North Korean refugees are considered in China
as illegal migrants.
So I was living in constant fear
that my identity could be revealed,
and I would be repatriated to a horrible fate
back in North Korea.
One day, my worst nightmare came true,
when I was caught by the Chinese police
and brought to the police station for interrogation.
Someone had accused me of being North Korean,
so they tested my Chinese language abilities
and asked me tons of questions.
I was so scared,
I thought my heart was going to explode.
If anything seemed unnatural, I could be imprisoned
I thought my life was over,
but I managed to control all the emotions inside me
and answer the questions.
After they finished questioning me,
one official said to another,
"This was a false report.
She's not North Korean."
And they let me go. It was a miracle.
Some North Koreans in China seek asylum
in foreign embassies,
but many can be caught by the Chinese police
These girls were so lucky.
Even though they were caught,
they were eventually released
after heavy international pressure.
These North Koreans were not so lucky.
Every year, countless North Koreans are caught in China
and repatriated to North Korea,
where they can be tortured, imprisoned
or publicly executed.
Even though I was really fortunate to get out,
many other North Koreans have not been so lucky.
It's tragic that North Koreans have to hide their identities
and struggle so hard just to survive.
Even after learning a new language and getting a job,
their whole world can be turned upside down in an instant.
That's why, after 10 years of hiding my identity,
I decided to risk going to South Korea,
and I started a new life yet again.
Settling down in South Korea was a lot more challenging
than I had expected.
English was so important in South Korea,
so I had to start learning my third language.
Also, I realized there was a wide gap
between North and South.
We are all Korean, but inside,
we have become very different
due to 67 years of division.
I even went through an identity crisis.
Am I South Korean or North Korean?
Where am I from? Who am I?
Suddenly, there was no country
I could proudly call my own.
Even though adjusting to life in South Korea was not easy,
I made a plan.
I started studying for the university entrance exam.
Just as I was starting to get used to my new life,
I received a shocking phone call.
The North Korean authorities
intercepted some money that I sent to my family,
and, as a punishment, my family was going
to be forcibly removed
to a desolate location in the countryside.
They had to get out quickly,
so I started planning how to help them escape.
North Koreans have to travel incredible distances
on the path to freedom.
It's almost impossible to cross the border
between North Korea and South Korea,
so, ironically, I took a flight back to China
and I headed toward the North Korean border.
Since my family couldn't speak Chinese,
I had to guide them,
somehow, through more than 2,000 miles in China
and then into Southeast Asia.
The journey by bus took one week,
and we were almost caught several times.
One time, our bus was stopped
and boarded by a Chinese police officer.
He took everyone's I.D. cards,
and he started asking them questions.
Since my family couldn't understand Chinese,
I thought my family was going to be arrested.
As the Chinese officer approached my family,
I impulsively stood up, and I told him
that these are deaf and dumb people
that I was chaperoning.
He looked at me suspiciously,
but luckily he believed me.
We made it all the way to the border of Laos,
but I had to spend almost all my money
to bribe the border guards in Laos.
But even after we got past the border,
my family was arrested and jailed
for illegal border crossing.
After I paid the fine and bribe,
my family was released in one month,
but soon after, my family was arrested and jailed again
in the capital of Laos.
This was one of the lowest points in my life.
I did everything to get my family to freedom,
and we came so close,
but my family was thrown in jail
just a short distance from the South Korean embassy.
I went back and forth between the immigration office
and the police station,
desperately trying to get my family out,
but I didn't have enough money
to pay a bribe or fine anymore.
I lost all hope.
At that moment, I heard one man's voice ask me,
I was so surprised
that a total stranger cared enough to ask.
In my broken English, and with a dictionary,
I explained the situation, and without hesitating,
the man went to the ATM
and he paid the rest of the money for my family
and two other North Koreans to get out of jail.
I thanked him with all my heart, and I asked him,
"Why are you helping me?"
"I'm not helping you," he said.
"I'm helping the North Korean people."
I realized that this was a symbolic moment in my life.
The kind stranger symbolized new hope for me
and the North Korean people when we needed it most,
and he showed me the kindness of strangers
and the support of the international community
are truly the rays of hope we North Korean people need.
Eventually, after our long journey,
my family and I were reunited in South Korea,
but getting to freedom is only half the battle.
Many North Koreans are separated from their families,
and when they arrive in a new country,
they start with little or no money.
So we can benefit from the international community
for education, English language training,
job training, and more.
We can also act as a bridge
between the people inside North Korea
and the outside world,
because many of us stay in contact
with family members still inside,
and we send information and money
that is helping to change North Korea from inside.
I've been so lucky, received so much help
and inspiration in my life,
so I want to help give aspiring North Koreans
a chance to prosper
with international support.
I'm confident that you will see more and more
North Koreans succeeding all over the world,
including the TED stage.
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee thoght her country was the "best on the planet." It wasn't until the famine of the 90s that she began to wonder. She escaped the country at 17-years-old to begin a life in hiding as a refugee in China. Hers is a harrowing, personal tale of survival and hope -- and a powerful reminder of those who face constant danger, even when the border is far behind.Why you should listen
Hyeonseo Lee grew up in North Korea but escaped to China in 1997. In 2008, when she was 28-years-old, she came to Seoul, South Korea, where she struggled to adjust to life in the bustling city. North Korean defectors often have a hard time in South Korea, she noted in the Wall Street Journal: "We defectors have to start from scratch. Prejudice against North Koreans and icy stares were other obstacles that were hard to cope with."
Now a student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, she has become an advocate for fellow refugees, even helping close relatives leave North Korea after they were targeted. Her dream? As she told the Korea Times, she'd like to work at the UN or an NGO that advocates for the human rights of North Koreans, including their right to be treated as political refugees.
She has a new book called The Girl with Seven Names.
The original video is available on TED.com