15.4.13 / FAB/ NORTH KOREA – STARVING CHILDREN
‘I SAW MY FIRST EXECUTION AT SEVEN’: NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR REVEALS ORDEAL OF GROWING UP IN DICTATORSHIP WHERE FAMINE WAS SO BAD THE STREETS WERE LINED WITH DEAD BODIES
– But after a family friend died of starvation she became desperate to escape
– Risked her life for a decade as refugee in China but made it to South Korea
– Returned to the North to smuggle her relatives out of the pariah state
A young woman who fled North Korea has revealed the horrific details of her upbringing in the pariah state, where she first saw someone executed when she was just seven-years-old.
Hyeonseo Lee was brainwashed to believe that the country, run by the murderous Kim regime, was the greatest in the world.
But when her eyes were opened to the desperate poverty and repression all around her, she knew she had to escape, and is now devoted to raising global awareness of her fellow countrymen’s plight.
Ms Lee spoke about her ordeal in a lecture at the TED conference in Long Beach, California, published by CNN.
She told how she grew up convinced that North Korea was the best place to live as she sang patriotic songs with titles such as ‘Nothing to Envy’.
‘When I was seven-years-old, I saw my first public execution – but I thought my life in North Korea was normal,’ she said.
It was not until 1995, during the first of a series of devastating famines to grip the country, that she first realised how serious was the plight of many North Koreans.
Her mother received a heart-wrenching letter from the sister of a colleague, and read it out to Ms Lee.
‘When you read this, all five family members will not exist in this world, because we haven’t eaten for the past two weeks,’ the letter read. ‘We are lying on the floor together, and our bodies are so weak we are ready to die.’
A short time later, she saw another shocking sight outside a train station – a woman was lying on the ground apparently dead, with a starving child in her arms staring at her face.
‘Nobody helped them, because they were so focused on taking care of themselves and their families,’ Ms Lee said.
She decided to take the extreme risk of escaping across the Amrok River which divides North Korea from China.
At the time, only a few dozen North Koreans fled the country each year – though enough tried and failed that dead bodies could often been seen floating down the river after failed escape attempts.
Ms Lee successfully crossed the border, leaving her family behind – but she was not yet out of danger entirely.
Because China is North Korea’s closest ally, it refuses to recognise the refugee status of those who flee the country, instead classifying them as illegal immigrants.
If Ms Lee had been caught by the Chinese authorities, she would have been returned to her home country and probably imprisoned or even executed.
She spent a decade hiding her true identity in China – although the police once interrogated her on suspicion of secretly being North Korean, her Chinese was good enough to fool them.
The defector then moved on to South Korea, arriving in 2008 and receiving a new apartment and college education.
However, although South Korea generally welcomes refugees from the North, Ms Lee’s decision was not without risk as the authorities in her home country have been known to inflict harsh punishments on those who have relatives in the South.
So when North Korean officials intercepted money she had sent to her family, Ms Lee knew she would have to move quickly to save them from a grisly fate.
She daringly returned to the North, and escorted them on a 2,000-mile bus journey through China to the South-East Asian state of Laos.
When the vehicle was stopped by a Chinese policeman, Ms Lee feared the worst, but managed to rescue her relatives from the danger.
‘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,’ she said. ‘He looked at me suspiciously, but luckily he believed me.’
The family reached Laos, but the vulnerable immigrants were placed in jail by corrupt officials and Ms Lee could not afford to pay the bribes which would ensure their release.
An Australian backpacker saw her weeping on the street, and after asking what was wrong went to an ATM to withdraw the money she needed.
When she asked why he was helping her, he replied: ‘I’m not helping you – I’m helping the North Korean people.’
Ms Lee is now campaigning for more international support for North Korean defectors and their families in order to help reintegrate the hermit nation with the rest of the world.
Over the past five years, an average of 2,400 people have fled the country annually.