Lee Hyeonseo first tasted freedom in a spoonful of ice cream in 1997. Used to North Korea’s drab combination of ice and sugar, Lee was astounded by the wealth of flavors across the border in China.
When she was 17, Lee escaped into China while famine ravaged North Korea. In China, the lights shone 24 hours a day. “Everything was so surreal that it was like a new world,” Lee said in a February 2 Facebook Live event at the U.S. Department of State.
Growing up, Lee’s teachers impressed on her that North Korea was superior to all other countries. But during the famine, she and her classmates went hungry. Lee saw people dying in the streets.
Living near the border with China, she was able to glimpse the outside world through Chinese television. Desperation for a better world that she saw on the screen compelled her to flee. During the next decade in China, she lived in hiding, fearful that authorities would forcibly repatriate her to North Korea. She escaped an arranged marriage and human trafficking.
“Give hope to many North Korean women who are crying out”- @HyeonseoLeeNK on China's trafficking circles
— Oslo Freedom Forum (@OsloFF) February 17, 2017
When she finally made it to South Korea in 2008, Lee had to adjust once more. She took enormous risks to rescue her mother and brother. With a stranger’s help, she succeeded. This interaction “showed me that the kindness of strangers and the support of the international community are truly the rays of hope that the North Korean people need,” Lee said.
In South Korea, she attended Hankuk University in Seoul, South Korea. Since graduating, she has helped raise awareness of the crimes of the North Korean regime and helped North Korean defectors. And in 2015, she published her bestselling memoir, The Girl with Seven Names, a reference to the new identities she had to create in hiding.
Stories of courage
More than 10 million people have watched Lee’s videotaped TED Talk on the story of her escape from North Korea.
Recently ShareAmerica spoke to her when she and other defectors were in Washington to meet President Trump. The defectors included Ji Seong-ho, who attended the president’s State of the Union address as a guest of first lady Melania Trump.
Vice President Pence subsequently heard Lee’s story and those of other North Korean defectors when he visited Seoul on February 9. “As we speak, 100,000 North Koreans today labor in modern-day gulags,” Pence said. “Seventy percent of North Koreans need food aid to be able to survive. Children face malnourishment and deprivation.”
Karen & I were honored to meet w/ victims of the oppressive North Korean regime. We heard the harrowing stories of defectors who risked life & limb for freedom, & from Fred Warmbier, father of the late Otto Warmbier. We admire their resilience. #VPinASIA pic.twitter.com/90kUlGSXG7
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) February 9, 2018
Lee says that many North Korean defectors carry poison on their journey to freedom. “They’d rather kill themselves than be repatriated to North Korea,” she said.