Funny, Depressed, Strong: The North Korean Defector Speaking for 'Her People’

Funny, Depressed, Strong: The North Korean Defector Speaking for 'Her People’
REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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The News Lens interviews North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee in Taipei.

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Hyeonseo Lee is very funny.

“Donkey!” she exclaims and laughs.

The North Korean defector is referring to the former prime minister of my native New Zealand, John Key. It is the first time I have heard this particular nickname for Key but it is one I am sure his detractors would support.

We have just met in her publisher’s office in Taipei, Taiwan. After making the New Zealand connection she busily scrolls through her Instagram feed. She wants to show me a photo with "Donkey" in it. She finds it, and bursts out laughing again, as she shoves her phone towards me.

“It looks like we are holding hands. Like I am his wife!”

It was so meaningful for me to speak to members of the New Zealand Parliament, and the Prime Minister, #JohnKey especially because I was in Wellington when the parliament passed the North Korean Human Rights Act. That night I delivered a speech to the New Zealand government in Wellington and another speech in Auckland. I was really touched when I saw Koreans in the audience crying with me. A South Korean exchange student told me that even though she grew up in South Korea, she didn't know that much about the North Korean tragedy until my speech. Feeling the overwhelmingly supportive response from the Korean community in New Zealand made me believe that we are all united, even though our country is artificially divided. And the overwhelming support from non-Koreans made me realize that we are all united.

A post shared by Hyeonseo Lee (이현서) (@hyeonseolee) on May 13, 2016 at 1:08am PDT

Lee, 37, met “Donkey” in May last year when she visited New Zealand to deliver a speech to New Zealand’s parliament. Twenty years after she fled North Korea, speaking engagements like that have become the norm for Lee. Following the success of a 2013 talk to the TED conference – a video of the talk has 8.7 million views and counting – and her best-selling memoir two years later, Lee is now one of the world’s most well-known North Korean defectors.

Her story is undoubtedly compelling. After quietly slipping across the border to China as a 17-year-old in 1997, she survived ten years in hiding and on the run in China before finally making it to South Korea. Then, after being told her family in North Korea was in danger, she returned to Changbai, on the Chinese border with North Korea, and helped them navigate an overland odyssey through China to reach Southeast Asia where they claimed asylum.

Woven into her own tragic narrative are accounts of the workings of the North Korean authoritarian system and the brutal reality of everyday life for a child in the country of 24 million people.

The horrors include stumbling across a public execution at seven years old.

She writes, “His face was covered with a dirty cloth sack and his hands were tied behind his back … He wasn’t moving but his body swayed slightly on a rope tied from the iron railing of the bridge … The rope creaked. I caught a reek of male sweat.”

She also describes how about eight years later, at 15, she discovered an abandoned baby in a “dripping, dim, and stinking” public toilet.

“Next to the hole of the squat toilet was a bloodied white plastic bag. Inside was a dead baby with a tiny pink-blue face. The mother must have given birth there and fled.”

Lee’s story is ultimately one of resilience and survival against all odds, but it is also threaded with an underlying question of whether the trials after she left North Korea – unbearable loneliness, horrible recurring lucid nightmares, and constant fear – were worth it, or did they ever really come to an end?

Depressed

Despite a life scarred with unfathomable hardship and sadness, she remains committed to struggling for the freedom and basic rights of ordinary North Koreans.

“As long as I can, I want to continue to spread this issue,” Lee tells The News Lens in Taipei.

To “spread the issue,” however, Lee must constantly revisit her past.

“Repeating the story every day reminds me, ‘you are the victim, you are the victim,’ which I don’t want to think about. I want to move on, I want to be a normal human being, but I can’t.”

Amid what might be seen as “success” – the popularity of her TED talk, her book “The Girl With Seven Names” reaching the New York Times Bestseller list, book tours and a position on the international speaking circuit – Lee says, “This work gives me depression.”

“Why is this successful? I want to cry sometimes.”

She describes herself as “a very ordinary girl” who sometimes likes to “be lazy” and “sleep a lot.”

While she feels a sense duty to do whatever she can to advance the cause of North Koreans, she has not adjusted to the stress that has come with her new life.

“Because of this responsibility I have to do what I hate to do,” she says. “So I gave up spending time with my family. I gave up my private life.”

She talks about having been critical in the past of South Korean celebrities who committed suicide after suffering from depression.

“I was thinking, ‘They are so stupid’; they have plenty of time to have depression; if you are super busy you have no time. I thought that was a luxury, having depression.”

But the past few years of relentless travel, speaking engagements, managing multiple social media accounts and giving countless interviews have taken their toll.

“I complain about traveling, I complain about taking an airplane, I complain about everything right now.”

At some point last year she says she realized, “All my answers were negative – ‘I am so tired’ or ‘I am depressed.’”

Her stress mounted to the point, she says, it was like something was physically “stuck” in her chest.

“I couldn’t breathe.”

Usually not one to call friends – “because I don’t have time” – she reached out.

At that time, “whoever receives my phone call, that person saves me,” she says. “If I couldn’t overcome that moment, it would be very dangerous.”

Today the depression is “getting worse.”

Strong

After about 15 minutes politely answering questions about depression, Lee steers the interview back to North Korea, but not before adding that she knows she is “very strong” and how to control herself, so she “will not go too crazy.”

“I have overcome so many difficulties, so the depression will not damage me,” she says. “I am not worried about it.”

She has to remind herself that she has “this voice” to tell the world about North Korea.

“I have a mission. I have to do this.”

She concedes that after giving “many” interviews – Time, BBC, CNN, Reuters, Associated Press, FOX, CBS to name a few – when it comes to North Korea, “many people are completely blank.”

“They know we are under a dictatorship, but they don’t know the details.”

People are aware of the “crazy dictator playing with nuclear weapons” or the “ridiculous hairstyle.” “That is all they know about,” she says.

As Lee illustrates in her book, one critical element to understanding the longevity of North Korea’s brutal Kim dynasty is the “songbun” system, developed in the late 1950s by North Korean founder Kim Il-sung. The system splits North Koreans into three classes, “core,” “wavering” and “hostile,” within which there are dozens of subcategories.

“Kim’s government based each citizen’s ‘songbun’ a term that translates as ‘ingredient’ but can also mean ‘background’ — on that individual's actions as well as those of his or her paternal ancestors during the Japanese colonial period, which lasted from 1910 to 1945, and the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953,” writes Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. “The state used the system to isolate and purge Kim’s enemies, real and perceived, and to reward his supporters.”

Under the “songbun,” one can move down to a lower class but it is “almost impossible” to move up to a higher class, Lee says. Moreover, people know the severity of the repercussions if they break the rules.

“The regime, they don’t have to tell us. The public executions, and the political prison camps – when whole families disappear – so many examples tell us we should be careful,” she says. “That is the only way they can keep control of the country.”

Lee, whose family was relatively well-off in North Korea, says she felt sorry for people from the lower classes but did not “feel really sad.”

“I thought it was very normal and that the whole world had the same system.”

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Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reacts during a ballistic rocket test-fire through a precision control guidance system in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 30, 2017.

There is no disputing the morality of Lee’s mission to emancipate her fellow North Koreans. Whether she, or any other campaigner or non-governmental organization, is making progress towards that end, is another question. Years of international sanctions have failed to stop the rise of the country's nuclear program. Just this month, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test capable of reaching Alaska. Some argue this has put the country’s leader Kim Jong-un in a stronger position when dealing with international pressure.

Lee believes, however, that telling her story to as many people as possible does make a difference. She points to a move in recent years by the United Nations Security Council to report on North Korean human rights violations.

“In the past they only paid attention to political issues including the nuclear missile tests, finally, from two years ago they paid attention to human rights issues,” she says. “This kind of movement is huge. It never happened before.”

In a perhaps more direct example, she says that one Silicon Valley billionaire donated a “huge amount” of money to a North Korea-focused NGO after hearing her TED Talk in 2013.

But again, given the tight restrictions on foreign aid into North Korea, what difference would a donation, even a large one, make to people under the control of the Kim regime?

“Right now, we can’t help people in North Korea,” Lee says flatly.

Lee sees helping North Koreans “change their minds themselves” as the “only way.”

She points to the relationship between East and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The information people from the West sent to the East was really important.”

And she believes that international efforts to get information into North Korea – including South Koreans sending balloons across the border with USB disks inside containing South Korean television dramas – is starting to make a difference.

“Their loyalty [to the Kim family] is decreasing but they are still scared about speaking publicly.”

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Lee speaking at the TED Conference in 2013. From the streets of Seoul to the European parliament a new generation of North Korean defectors is stepping into the limelight, telling their personal stories to highlight the human rights abuses in their homeland. Picture taken May 29, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Lee wrote her book to tell the world what was going on in North Korea because she knew it was recording an important point in history. While not her intention, one of the most common responses she gets from readers is that they have a greater appreciation for their own freedoms and opportunities, having, briefly at least, compared their own misfortunes against the plight of a North Korean.

“People are used to complaining,” she says. “After they read the book they realize they have a lot. And they are very thankful for everything.”

It is a surprising, if not a bittersweet, outcome for Lee.

“I didn’t write this book to be ‘medicine’ for other people,” she says. “This is my sad history, my sad story. I only wrote it for my people inside North Korea.”

Notwithstanding the personal cost, she will continue advocating for her “people.”

“I am a North Korean defector. I can’t change. I have accepted this is my life.”

Still, even amid this deep sense of sadness, Lee, it seems, can’t help but be funny.

“Maybe in my next life I’ll have a different career.”

She laughs again.

  • “The Girl with Seven Names – A North Korean Defector’s Story,” has been published in 19 languages and 26 countries
  • U.S. television personality Oprah described Lee’s TED Talk as: "The most riveting TED Talk ever"
  • More than 30,000 North Korean defectors have reached South Korea
  • The number of defectors reaching South Korea peaked in 2009 at 2,914
  • The number of defectors reaching South Korea declined for five years after Kim Jong-un took office in 2011. There was a slight increase last year
  • Many North Koreans face resettlement challenges including psychological issues such as depression, family separation, anxiety, loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder

Editor: Olivia Yang