NK News’s participation in the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity was assisted financially by its organizers
While Seoul continues to throw out a lifeline to reinitiate talks, North Korea retaliates with continued missile tests, and warns that humanitarian aid and civilian exchanges will not be enough to improve inter-Korean relations.
Earlier in the month, North Korea stated that family reunions wouldn’t happen unless South Korea returns 12 North Korean restaurant worker “abductees” to Pyongyang, and the regime also continues to accuse South Korea and the U.S. of an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un.
Following a panel on North Korea human rights, Why They Suffer: A Reality Report on North Korea’s Human Rights, at the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in early June on South Korea’s Jeju Island, Lee sat down with NK News to discuss her concerns about the new government, the defector community, the rising importance of foreign information in North Korea, and where her activism goes from here.
During South Korea’s recent presidential election, 3000 defectors threatened to leave the country if Moon Jae-in became president. Activists claimed that defectors had been “oppressed and discriminated against” in South Korean society during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, for which Moon was chief of staff. With President Moon now in office, what can change for the defector community in South Korea?
Ten years since defecting to China, nine years since coming to Seoul, and two years since the debut of her autobiography The Girl with Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee has become something of a celebrity in the defector community and a prominent advocate for North Korean human rights.
Even today, her book continues to be a best-seller, continuing to attract attention in a political climate so focused on North Korea’s every move. But how does she think this publicity and exposure has helped change the dialogue surrounding North Korean defectors today?
Lee is surprised that her book is still selling in significant numbers.
“I should be happy,” she tells NK News. “People are paying attention to North Korean human rights issues. I think what people wrote me after reading my book was that they learned from my book the other side of North Koreans’ human story.”
“Not very extreme human stories but the other side of our lives story. I described with my heart, truly, so they could feel my journey while reading the book. That really touched them.”
Since President Moon came into office, a lot has changed. After ten years of hardline conservatives in the Blue House, the new government is keen to improve inter-Korean relations, as is to be expected when a shift from conservative to liberal government takes place. But how are these new policies going to affect the refugees who chose to reside in the South?
Hyeonseo Lee did not hold back in her statement: “Honestly, I have no hope for the current government. I hope he can do the right thing for the North Korean people, not only for the dictators in North Korea but for the people inside North Korea. I really hope he can do the right thing,” she says.
“We know that [Moon is] very kind to the regime and that’s why so many defectors are worried about the current government. So…I don’t know. He just started so we will see. It seems he’s doing pretty good for the South Korean people because it is his job. But for North Korean issues.. I hope he doesn’t disappoint the North Korean defectors like the Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun governments did.”
“I hope [Moon] doesn’t disappoint North Korean defectors like Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun did.”
ONE FREE KOREA?
According to a 2015 Asan Institute report, South Korea’s youth generation is largely apathetic on the topic of unification and North Korean issues, in ever-growing numbers. With a lack of domestic support and a liberal administration in office, Lee and defectors say they face an uphill struggle to make their voices heard.
“If we can all pay attention, that is the ideal solution. But so far, only the international community seems to care about the issue,” Lee says. “And honestly, it’s very disappointing that the South Korean government does not seem to care about North Korean human rights issues.”
“So, naturally, the majority of ordinary people also do not care about the issues. How can we mobilize the people in South Korea to care? Maybe we need more time to close the gap, but I don’t know. This is a really long assignment that we have to resolve. If people, not just politicians, care about this issues–if they cry with us and truly feel the pain–then I think that’s the biggest gift we can have right now.”
One way for South Korea to help would be to increase access to foreign information to the North Korean people, Lee says. The most important thing for North Koreans is not freedom, but information.
“It’s really important,” Lee emphasizes. “Because if you don’t know what’s going on in the outside, you don’t even know what freedom is. Information is first, and freedom is second.”
Lee’s TED talk about her escape from North Korea, which has been viewed over 5 million times on Youtube
“It’s very disappointing that the South Korean government does not seem to care about North Korean human rights issues.”
Lee escaped the North at the end of 1997, long before South Korean dramas or K-pop songs fled to North Korean black markets. But having lived right next to the border, she was able to pick up Chinese TV signals and watch Chinese broadcasts.
“People living away from the border don’t have this opportunity,” Lee says. “But because of this, I was exposed to foreign information at a very early age, or faster than other North Koreans. Chinese TV completely transformed my life. I started to think that maybe my country is not the best in the world, so that was a huge, significant change. At the time, Chinese TV featured this K-Pop group and even showed the dance routines.”
Later, Lee realized this K-pop group was H.O.T., a South Korean boy band that was very popular in the mid to late 1990’s. While the group disbanded in 2001, it helped Lee realize South Korea was not what she had been told to believe.
“I grew up thinking China was better than North Korea, but it seemed Chinese people went crazy watching the South Korean dancers’ performance,” she says. “So I was really confused – I thought South Korea was the poorest country in the world, people are even dying in the street–how could they look like that? My point is: media. Information is really important.”
INFORMATION BLACK HOLE
Nobody to date has doubted the importance of increasing access to foreign information in North Korea, but is this something South Korea can promote in, or given the current administration, will it be up to the international community?
“Information is really important”
What defector organizations are doing now: sending aid, propaganda balloons and radio broadcasts across the border, is very small-scale, Lee says.
“There are a lot of limitations and budget problems, but if the South Korean government – which seems impossible now – helps with these projects, then we can have a bigger outcome.”
However, aid may be exactly the opposite of what North Korea seeks. Since President Moon took office, the DPRK has tested five missiles, accused South Korea and the U.S. of conspiring to assassinate Kim Jong Un during the Day of the Sun parade, and rejected all proposals to reinitiate inter-Korean relations.
In North Korea, nuclear tests and inter-Korean news do not disrupt daily life as they seem to do in the South.
“For people in South Korea, nuclear tests can seem like a crazy huge issue, but for those born in North Korea, it’s something that happens all the time since they were born,” Lee says. “There were no nuclear tests back [when I lived there], but there have always been some sort of military provocation. But [at the time], South Korea was always trying to hit North Korea so we thought ‘of course North Korea should fight back’ and we were kind of used to it. We considered that situation normal and inevitable.”
“Now that people know about my own story, I want to tell the world about other female defectors’ stories”
Even today, some North Koreans are not aware that having nuclear power is something dangerous, Lee says. The majority of North Koreans are either unaware or indifferent to politics.
“If you know about the politics, you are actually more in danger because we are living in fear inside North Korea, so they don’t care what’s nuclear or what’s missile,” Lee says.
“They just live daily life just struggling, suffering to feed their families and earn money in the market. So it’s like a completely separate thing. They don’t really watch the news. There are power shortages even today all the time. They’re not even watching TV, so it’s a completely different world they’re living in.”
So what’s next for Hyeonseo Lee? When asked if she has plans to write another book, she smiles.
“Yes, of course,” she says. “I was planning to do that for a few years, but I was super busy so I couldn’t publish that yet. But my second book will be about the story of sex slave female defectors in China. Now that people know about my own story, I want to tell the world about other female defectors’ stories. I want people to know about the human rights abuses happening inside North Korea.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Migrant Voice UK
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