Hyeonseo Lee: Seven names, a thousand stories

Hyeonseo Lee

She is a famous North Korean defector who has the US President’s ear and the world’s attention. As a gutsy 17 year old, Hyeonseo Lee crossed the narrow river between her hometown in North Korea into China in 1997 after having witnessed a famine, public executions and night-time blackouts in her own country. She could see the neighbouring country of China had electricity to power lights at night. She was also able to watch the myriad Chinese TV channels, albeit illegally, advertising a more prosperous way of life, and came to understand the one TV channel in North Korea only offered propaganda.

She didn’t know she wouldn’t see her family for another 14 years after the crossing the river, nor could she have known how she would have to hide her North Korean identity in China for the 10 years she was there. South Korea, where she now lives as a citizen, was not welcoming for North Korean defectors either. However she managed to survive and bring her mother and brother to live with her. If it weren’t for good luck and a timely meeting with an Australian man in Laos, she would have lost her family to the confines of a Laos prison, a cruel fate for a family fleeing North Korean subjugation.

Hyeonseo Lee gave a famous TED talk in 2013 and has become an activist bringing the plight of North Korean defectors, especially those facing repatriation from China, under the spotlight. Her book ‘The Girl with Seven Names’ was published in 2016 and she caught up with Pip Andreas at Byron Writers Festival 2018 this weekend.

There are a lot of people in this world who don’t trust Donald Trump. You had a 50 minute meeting with him. What makes you have faith that he will meet with the Chinese government to talk about repatriations?

Human rights issues are really sensitive as I know and the Chinese government hates to hear that. The reason he wanted to meet us, the one keyword was human rights issues. He wanted to pressure on China with that issue because the meeting was broadcast. He had already started talking human rights issues. He gave a speech in South Korea last year before meeting with me. That was the first meeting of an American President in South Korea, and he spent more than half the time talking about human rights issues. South Korean government and politicians, they hate to hear that, but he was lecturing all the MPs. He didn’t mention human rights issues directly to Kim Jong Un in Singapore. I know it will not come very quickly, but in his period I believe he will message human rights issues to North Korea.

That was before the trade war with China. Will we have to wait for them to get beyond the trade war for Trump to bring up human rights with China again?

I think he will, because I think I was very surprised at how suddenly he wanted to meet the defectors. But I think this was not sudden. I think this was planned for a long time. What I heard was the Obama Administration, when they were ending their period, they gave advice to President Trump to bring up this issue, because Obama administration didn’t want to touch human rights issues.

Do you think anything really came from those talks in Singapore between President Trump and Kim Jong Un or was it just public relations?

First of all the meeting is really important actually, symbolic, because that was the first time in history ever. But the results from what they signed is not exactly what I like, some of them very vague; that’s a huge thing, denuclearisation…I’m not really optimism. But politically raising these issues, denuclearisation, human rights issues, is really important. But I was really confused what Kim Jong Un really wanted. Maybe he is making a huge show, or maybe he really want it. As I know the regime, I think he is making a show. What I hate is that people have delusion right now, like he is not dictator, he is peacemaker… He killed many innocent people. He killed his own uncle and his brother. The mask he is showing to the world is laughing so we shouldn’t forget about that. But I only hope he can change. As we know he doesn’t want to lose his power…even if he does the denuclearisation, I don’t believe it. They’re going to hide, they are very good at that. We have so many tunnels under North Korea.

What did you feel when you saw Korea marching as one in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics and playing ice hockey together?

As a North Korean, it is very emotional to see that. It is fake and I wish it’s real. I wish that happens every year but I know this is only one time show then disappear in your dreams. I know the nature of the North Korean regime. They got more than South Korea by joining the Olympics. I mean North Korea got so much attention and they really perfectly promoted it. North Korea was the hot star. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, she was there, but not much spotlight compared to dictator’s sister. She got so much attention worldwide. They got what they wanted. Even at the Singapore summit. I mean we see North Korea as stupid idiot but they are actually very smart at playing this game.

You came from an upper class family in North Korea and your life wasn’t as harsh as some others. If your mother had stayed in North Korea with her siblings (who she misses so much), would she have her own sense of freedom?

If she was still in North Korea she would miss me. So she made the brave decision to be with me. Now she misses her old life. You can’t have everything. We can’t go back. Her mentality drive her crazy. If we didn’t leave she would feel free because even though we have dictator, people are used to living there because we never experience democracy. If you live in a cave that is ok and if you have money, your happiness is higher, no stress. When we came here, everyone is richer than us, we are the minority, is so depressing. I think my mum would be happy if she never leave North Korea because she will have seven brothers and sisters, she will have no language barrier. In Germany when the wall collapse, some didn’t want reunification. I think it depends on your generation.

What about your brother?

My brother is at Columbia University in New York… I asked him are you happy right now because you almost went back to North Korea and you wouldn’t have the chance to see this amazing university. He said in this life nothing is easy. He said that fundamentally I am happy that I escaped the country. Everything that I had in North Korea, I know that it will not last forever. If the regime want to take, it happens to so many people in just one second and they put you in jail. I can’t live in that country freely, I can’t sleep at night…but here they won’t do the same. In that sense, he says I love freedom.

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