‘My focus is to help North Korean defectors fleeing from a brutal regime’

New Delhi, Aug 2 (IANS) Hyeonseo Lee grew up “brainwashed” by the North Korean regime and endured the “starving and suffering” of people around her. She was 17 when she fled to China from her home country – a “strictly monitored society” that uses “fear as a tool of oppression”.

Hyeonseo, in her book, writes about her growing up years, her escape from North Korea in 1997 till the time she reached South Korea in 2008. “The Girl With Seven Names” is drawn from the life she led in the closed regime and the tense period when she hid her identity from authorities, behind the veil of several identities.

Hyeonseo Lee is not the name she was born with but the one she gave herself, the book begins by saying. She even addresses her uncles and aunts as Uncle Poor, Uncle Money, Uncle Opium and Aunt Old – to protect some of them from possible repercussions.

In an email interview to IANS, Hyeonseo said that like so many other North Koreans, she too believed that her country was the “best on the planet” and that the leaders “were sincerely protecting and serving” them.

As a child, her favourite subject was memorising the Dear Leader’s revolutionary history because she thought it was important.

But as she grew, doubts began to grow too. She secretly watched Chinese TV and was fascinated by it. There was a bigger world beyond North Korea, she began to think.

There were early signs that things were not what she was led to believe.

One of the most prominent memories of her childhood was witnessing the first public execution at age seven.

“I saw a man hanging by his neck under a railway bridge. I will never be able to forget that horrible experience.”

“The North Korean regime uses fear as a tool of oppression; so we know that we shouldn’t say anything against the regime or the propaganda that we were fed constantly,” Hyeonseo told IANS.

She said: “The North Korean regime also has an elaborate system of surveillance where neighbours spy on neighbours and nobody can really trust each other. Even husbands and wives have to be careful what they say in front of each other because if they get divorced there could be a big problem.”

Initially, she accepted “the propaganda and the oppression as normal”. As North Koreans, “we all somehow knew how to be careful about what we were saying. If we didn’t, we could be severely punished”.

When the country was hit by a famine in the 1990s, she realised the nation was reeling under serious problems.

“I read a letter that my mom brought home from a co-worker’s sister whose entire family had run out of food and was starving and simply waiting to die. I was shocked that this could go on in my country. Not long after that I began to notice a lot of beggars and even dead bodies on the streets.

“One time I saw an emaciated child lying helplessly in his dying mother’s arms. I felt so sad that I placed some money in the child’s hand even though I knew it wouldn’t last. It was devastating to see my own countrymen dying in front of me. Everyone was so focussed on themselves that they couldn’t even help other people,” Hyeonseo told IANS.

Since her family lived near the border, she escaped one night with the help of a smuggler friend and a border guard, who had a soft corner for her. She crossed the loosely guarded border on the frozen river into China where she stayed for almost a decade, a period she describes as painful.

She learnt Mandarin by watching TV and on being goaded by her father. Once she narrowly escaped from being captured in China – which returned North Koreans back to their country – by sheer dint of her language ability. She had to be on her toes at all time, hiding her true identity and feelings from everyone.

For Hyeonseo, who is now in her early 30s, raising awareness is the most important first step in her campaign to improve human rights in North Korea and to support North Korean defectors.

“Even though North Korea has been abusing its people for many decades, the international community has only recently begun to awaken to this travesty,” she said.

“Many people around the world have contacted me to tell me that they were not fully aware of the situation in North Korea. My main focus is to help North Korean defectors who have suffered so much to reach freedom,” she concluded.

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