A N. Korean's defection, complicated by her love-hate bonds with China

Hyeonseo Lee's perilous road to freedom passed through China, which often sends defectors back to face harsh punishment in the North. She recently shared her experience at a book talk in Beijing, an appearance that caused a stir.

Gary Doak/AP/File
Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector, was a featured author at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival in March. As far as any of the attendees knew, this was the first time a North Korean defector had given a public talk in China.

It wasn’t enough that Hyeonseo Lee had already risked death once to escape from North Korea in 1997. Twelve years later, she tempted fate again, helping her mother and brother flee from the world’s most isolated and brutal dictatorship.

Both times, Lee’s perilous road to freedom passed through China – a country notorious for sending defectors back to Pyongyang and its execution squads. Last month she returned here to speak openly of how she managed to sneak herself and her family across multiple borders. 

“If we succeed, we could go to a free country, like South Korea. If we fail, we could end up in political prisoner camp, or worst scenario, killed in public execution,” Lee recalled thinking as she shepherded her family through China, using various tricks to pass through police checkpoints.

Lee recounts her twin journeys through China in a recent memoir, “The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story,” which she presented in Beijing last month. It reads like a political thriller, laced with Lee’s reflections on her early “brainwashing” and her continuing struggles about her identity.

Other defectors have chronicled their escapes from North Korea. What makes Lee’s saga different is her complicated love-hate relationship with China. It’s a relationship that she was somehow able to discuss openly during her visit here last month, when she was a featured author at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival.

Chinese who helped her, despite the risks

Lee spent 11 years in China after fleeing North Korea, and she was forced to change names repeatedly to avoid being identified as a defector. On several occasions, Chinese people took risks on her behalf, for which she will always be grateful, she said. 

Her view of the Chinese government is decidedly mixed. China, she said, has contributed to the deaths of thousands of defectors, by sending them back to Pyongyang, where they face certain imprisonment or death. On the other hand, she said she was “pleasantly surprised” that Beijing granted her a visa and allowed her to speak about the plight of North Korean refugees in China.

“I think it’s possible that China is ready for a serious change regarding its North Korean defector policy,” she told the Monitor in an e-mail Thursday. “Chinese people are starting to realize that so many defectors have been suffering in China, and it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Lee grew up in Hyesan, a city with a bird’s eye view of China. A single bridge over the Yalu River separated her hometown from the Chinese border county of Changbai, which has long thrived on trade with North Korea.

Lee’s father was a soldier, while her mother made extra money as a cross-border trader. The young girl was raised believing that North Korea’s Great Leader – at the time, Kim Il-sung – was like a god, incapable of error. “I thought my country was the best in the world,” she said. 

By her teens, Lee was starting to question some of the official propaganda. She witnessed public executions of those labeled as traitors. While her hometown endured regular power blackouts, she saw the lights glowing on the Chinese side of the river. 

In 1994, her father ran afoul of the regime, for reasons that were never fully clear to Lee. After two weeks of military detention, her father was sent to a hospital, “haggard, with sunken eyes,” she writes in the book. After six weeks in the hospital, he died – apparently of a suicidal drug overdose.

'Don't come back'

Lee’s defection to China came three years later, and it happened almost by accident. She said she’d always wanted to visit the Chinese side, a desire that grew as North Korea was stricken by famine in 1996. The next year, she took a chance. Her plan was to make a quick visit to relatives who lived in Shenyang – a northeastern Chinese city she mistakenly believed was nearby – and then return to Hyesan.

With the connivance of a sympathetic border guard, Lee crossed the frozen Yalu River on foot, and then made it to the house of a family friend in Changbai. The next day, she said, the family friend drove Lee to her aunt and uncle’s house in Shenyang, a bustling city unlike anything she had ever seen. 

Lee had planned to return to North Korea after a week, but then her mother telephoned her with a brief, dire message: “Don’t come back. We’re in trouble.” Lee’s disappearance had caught the attention of North Korean authorities, putting the family in danger.

Lee did not see her mother and brother again for 12 years. She lived and worked in Shenyang and Shanghai, learned Mandarin, dated local men, and managed to pass herself off as a Chinese national of Korean heritage. Gradually, from friends, she learned more about the harsh realities of life back in North Korea. 

Yet China was anything but a sanctuary. Informants were everywhere. At one one point, Lee was hauled into a Shenyang police station and interrogated – a test of her Chinese language skills. “My heart was beating wildly but I forced myself to remain calm,” she writes in the book. Eventually, the police let her go. 

Helping her mother and brother

Lee experienced another close call years later, in 2009. By then, she was safely exiled in South Korea, but she decided to return to China help her mother and brother escape.

The three fugitives were on a bus, en route to China’s southern borders with Vietnam and Laos. Outside Beijing, police stopped the bus and boarded it. They not only checked IDs but started questioning individual passengers, looking for those who couldn’t speak Chinese. 

Mortified, Lee told the police that both her mother and brother were deaf and dumb. Her mother played along with the ruse by flailing her arms around and making strange noises. The other passengers knew she was faking it, having seen the family chatting previously on the bus. Amazingly, none of passengers informed on them. As Lee writes in her book, “I had fifty-two accomplices to a crime, and they were all total strangers.”

With the help of a broker, Lee arranged for her mother and brother to cross out of China and into Laos. Yet just when she thought her family was out of harm’s way, they were detained by Laotian authorities. Lee had to fly to Laos and, on two different occasions, dole out bribes to secure her family’s release, she said. The second time she was helped by a stranger from Australia, Dick Stolp, who lent her money to buy her family’s freedom. It was another of those moments, she later recalled, “when my view of the world changed and I realized there were many good people on this planet.” 

With her family safe, Lee now lives in South Korea – married to an American she met in Seoul – but travels frequently. She is in high demand on the international speaking circuit, one of the few North Korean defectors who can share her story in English.

In 2013, Lee was invited to deliver a TED Talk. She barely holds back tears as she describes what she witnessed in North Korea, and the bewilderment she felt upon arriving in Seoul. “Suddenly there was no country I could proudly call my own,” she said during the Ted Talk, which has been viewed more than 5.2 million times. 

Lee’s appearance at the Beijing Bookworm Festival in late March also caused a stir. As far as any of the attendees knew, this was the first time a North Korean defector had given a public talk in China. 

Lee said she agonized over the event for months. South Korean intelligence officials pressured her not to attend, she said, fearing it could spark a diplomatic row with China.  

“They said, ‘If the Chinese government is really angry at you, maybe they will do worse things to North Korean defectors.’ 

"I said, ‘They are already doing worse things enough. What can they do more here, about my visiting?’ ”

In the end, Lee’s book talk caused no noticeable blowback, even as she issued a public call for Beijing to ease its policies, and “let the North Korean defectors cross [your] land.” China is thought to be home to more than 100,000 refugees from North Korea, many living in the shadows, fearful they could be caught and repatriated if they try to leave the country.

While Lee sees signs that China’s attitudes may be shifting, she sees little evidence that Pyongyang will soon ease its repressive policies. Even so, she remains cautiously optimistic.

“I can’t be sure of exactly when and how North Korea will change,” she said in an e-mail exchange. “But I do believe it will happen, hopefully in my mother’s lifetime.”

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