Defector’s tale won’t be told here

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Defector’s tale won’t be told here


Hyeonseo Lee stages on TED Conference in California on Feb. 28, 2013. [TED]

BERLIN - The personal stories of North Korean defectors ordeals faced in their homeland and on their escapes have been published and broadcast for so many years in South Korea that the audience has become jaded and possibly indifferent to the plight of the 30,000 defectors who risked their lives for freedom.

But those defectors’ tales are becoming more popular in the West. This summer, a series of English-language books authored by North Korean defectors is hitting bookstores around the world. One of the new books is a memoir by Hyeonseo Lee, 35, entitled “The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story.” It was released in 20 countries in several languages on July 2.

The release comes nearly two years after the London-based publishing giant HarperCollins bought world English-language rights to the memoir, in a six-figure dollar deal at an auction in Hong Kong.

A month ahead of the release, Lee visited Berlin and London for interviews with leading media outlets including the BBC and the Times, the Guardian, Glamour magazine and Die Welt. Her publisher has also arranged appearances on news shows in New York in July, including CNN Tonight and MSNBC Morning Joe.


The cover of Lee’s memoir. Provided by Lee

During Lee’s tour in Berlin, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with her at the Bertelsmann building, the home of her German-language publisher.

When asked why South Korea was excluded from the list of 20 countries where her memoir will be released, Lee said, “South Koreans are less interested in North Korean defectors and North Koreans’ human rights issues, which is a little strange and shameful when the international community is paying so much attention now.

“I am sure they [South Korean publishers] will publish it in the end but it will take some time. People in South Korea are more interested in a book that becomes a best-seller outside the country.”

For South Koreans, Hyeonseo Lee is not a household name. Although she made regular appearances on a TV show on Channel A called “Now on My Way to Meet You,” which featured young and beautiful female defectors, she quit after just six months. She recalls being disgusted with some of her fellow defectors making up stories to attract more attention.

But Lee found a way to capture a much bigger audience. After passing a highly competitive audition, she was given the chance to take the stage at a TED conference in Long Beach, California in February 2013. She became the first North Korean defector at the conferences run by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation. Lee described her defection from North Korea and the horrible human rights violations and rampant poverty in the isolated nation.

Those 12 minutes on stage became another turning point in her life, Lee said. The live broadcast of the speech was watched around the globe, and the number of viewers of the video, later posted on the TED site, has surpassed four million.

People inspired by her speech - including an influential venture capitalist in Silicon Valley - have offered to lend a hand to help North Koreans, and she has built a global network of supporters.

At first glance, it would seem that Lee had a relatively smooth path in defecting from North Korea. She grew up in a wealthy family in Hyesan, a city in the northern part of North Korea and on the south bank of China’s Yalu River, firmly believing North Korea was “the best in the world.”

But a growing awareness of the extreme poverty of other North Koreans and a fascination with Chinese pop culture prompted her to leave her home at the age of 17 in 1997. She crossed the Yalu River to reach Changbai and managed to spend over a decade in Shenyang and Shanghai posing as a Chinese woman. Over time, she changed her name from the original Min-young to Mi-ran to Sun-hyang and to Sun-ja. Hyeonseo is her seventh name. She adopted it in Seoul after paying 50,000 won ($45) to a professional name-giver in 2009.

Thanks to her fluent Mandarin, she made a living as a waitress at a Korean restaurant in Shenyang and as an interpreter-secretary at a South Korean company in Shanghai. Through enormous luck, she avoided being forced into prostitution or being sold to a remote farm village in China as a young bride, the fate of countless other female North Korean defectors.

In 2008, Lee says she decided to flee to South Korea because the Chinese government had stepped up pressure on North Korean defectors before the Beijing Olympics. Adjusting to Seoul life was not hard either, she said. After a two-month adjustment period in Hanawon, an institution that teaches defectors how to live in South Korean society, she settled in Geumcheon district in western Seoul. Although it was far from the posh Gangnam area that she dreamed about - partly thanks to a South Korean man she dated in Shanghai - she studied to get ahead.

On the verge of applying for university at the age of 29, Lee could not stop thinking of her mother and younger half-brother left behind in North Korea. She believed she was then capable of helping them escape.

At the end of 2009, Lee devised a plan. She would meet her mother and brother in Changbai, in China’s Jilin province, and accompany them all the way to Kunming in southern China. They would enter Vietnam and seek asylum with the South Korean embassy in Ho Chi Min City.

But the flight was rocky and her mother and brother ended up in Laos, where they were jailed.

Lee visited them in jail and bribed the superintendent there to get them better treatment. Her money soon ran out and Lee fell into despair. Then an angel-like figure showed up: an Australian backpacker named Dick Stolp, who gave Lee over $1,000 with no conditions.

“Why are you helping me?” she asked Stolp.

“I’m not helping you,” the man replied. “I am helping the North Korean people.”

Thanks to his generosity, Lee got her relatives out of the hellish jail.

“What Dick did changed my life,” Lee recalls, “From the day I met him, the world was a less cynical place. I started feeling warmth for other people. This seemed so natural, and yet I’d never felt it before”

Lee and Stolp - thanks to efforts of an Australian broadcasting station - had a dramatic reunion in 2013, and the video is available on YouTube.

Lee’s memoir, co-authored by British writer David John, describes in detail the never-ending trials and obstacles and the luck and resilience that allowed her to overcome them.

The concise style of writing and ample background information for foreign readers who have little knowledge of the North-South division of Korea sets Lee’s memoir apart from other defectors’ memoirs. A sophisticated depiction of Lee’s emotions and inner conflict also adds to the book.

Her puzzlement over English words such as “nacho,” “popcorn” and “cola” transcribed into Korean on her first visit to a movie theater in Seoul encouraged her to “be educated further.”

She got into the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul in 2011 and graduated recently with a double major in English and Chinese. Her English ability has helped publicize human rights violations in North Korea; she has spoken at the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Her 31-year-old American husband is her biggest supporter and collaborator, she says. With his assistance in the English language, she has contributed essays to several media outlets, including the New York Times and the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The two met five years ago in the Hongik University area in northwestern Seoul through mutual friends. They married last year after dating for four years.

Despite her book and fame that is certain to grow bigger with global media exposure, Lee is not entirely gleeful.

“Publicly I want to say I am happy to have escaped North Korea,” she says. “Many people say they envy me because I got a book deal with a big publisher and the book will be published all over the world. But this is not the life I wanted. What I wanted was a normal life with my family with no threats or fear. After escaping the country, I can’t have both. It’s not easy to be a North Korean refugee. It’s never-ending and never easy. If there is a time machine that would allow me to return to the moment when I was a 17-year-old girl on the verge of crossing the North Korean border, and if I knew all the hardships that were coming, I might not have done it.”

Her mother cries often because she misses her siblings back in the border town of North Korea.

“My mom says she even misses the air of North Korea. And each time she cries, my heart breaks. I sometimes regret the decision to bring her out of the country, wondering if that was purely out of the selfish motivation to worry less about her safety and to keep her close to me. I even went so far as to think of ways to send her back.”

That is probably why Lee yearns for unification.

“There are differing opinions between the South and North on the method of unification and I know there are many South Koreans who don’t think unification is a good idea, citing the astronomical cost,” she says. “But North Korea is where I was born and raised. I hate the crazy North Korean regime but our innocent, ordinary people are there. Wouldn’t I want to see unification realized before I die?”

She grins and mentions the 2009 Goldman Sachs report that optimistically predicted that a unified Korea would see per-capita GDP surpass that of Japan, Germany and France within the next 40 years, relying in particular on the North’s ample natural resources.

“We are all the same generation in this 21st century. I experienced all the horrible things even though we were not in a war like in 1950 to 1953,” she says.

She says she hopes that some of the false testimony from some fellow defectors does not make the world doubt ordeals experienced in North Korea.

“There are 30,000 defectors who can tell real stories and who have suffered in real life,” she says. “Listen to their voices.”

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