Skip to main content

Why I fled North Korea

By Hyeonseo Lee, Special to CNN
April 14, 2013 -- Updated 2142 GMT (0542 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hyeonseo Lee: When I was young, I thought my country North Korea was the best
  • Lee: As I saw suffering, hunger and death around me, I made my way to China
  • She says she helped her family escape North Korea with the help of a stranger
  • Lee: North Korean people need the support of the international community

Editor's note: Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea and left for China in 1997. She now lives in South Korea and is an activist for North Korea refugees. Lee spoke at the TED2013 conference in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- When I was young, I thought my country was the best on the planet. I grew up singing a song called "Nothing to Envy." I felt very proud. I thought my life in North Korea was normal, even though when I was 7 years old, I saw my first public execution.

My family was not poor, and I had never experienced hunger. But after my mother read me a letter from a coworker's sister who said that her family was dying of hunger, I realized that something was very wrong in my country. A huge famine hit North Korea in the mid to late 1990s, and I began to see suffering, hunger and death around me.

Watch Hyeonseo Lee's TED Talk

I can't reveal the details of how I left North Korea, but I can say that during the dark years of the famine when I was a young girl, I went alone to China to live with distant relatives. I thought I would be separated from my family for a short time. I could never have imagined that it would take 14 years for my family to live together again.

TED.com: Escaping the Khmer Rouge

Since North Korean refugees are considered illegal migrants in China, I lived in constant fear that my identity would be revealed and I would be repatriated to a horrible fate back in North Korea.

One day, my worst nightmare came true when I was caught by the Chinese police and brought to the police station for interrogation. Someone had accused me of being North Korean, so they tested my Chinese language abilities and asked me tons of questions. I thought my life was over, but I managed to control all the emotions inside of me and answered their questions. They let me go. It was a miracle!

Hyeonseo Lee
Hyeonseo Lee

TED.com: The voices of China's workers

After 10 years of hiding my identity and living in fear in China, I decided to risk going to South Korea. Even though adjusting to life in South Korea was not easy, I made a plan and started studying for the university entrance exam. Just as I was starting to get used to my new life, I received a shocking phone call -- the North Korean authorities intercepted some money that I sent my family through a broker, and as punishment, my family was going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside.

They had to get out of North Korea quickly. So I started planning how to help them escape.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I took a flight back to China and headed toward the North Korean border. Since my family couldn't speak Chinese, I had to guide them, somehow, through more than 2,000 miles in China and then into Southeast Asia. The journey by bus took one week, and we were almost caught several times.

North Korea's propaganda machine grips defector 11 years on

One time, our bus was stopped and boarded by a Chinese police officer. He took everyone's ID cards and started asking questions. Since my family couldn't understand Chinese, I thought we were going to be arrested. As the police officer approached my family, I quickly stood up and told him that these were deaf and dumb people that I was chaperoning. He looked at me suspiciously, but luckily, he believed me.

We made it all the way to the border of Laos, but I had to spend almost all of my money to bribe the border guards. Even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed for illegal border crossing.

TED.com: How to combat modern slavery

After I paid the bribe and fine, my family was released after one month. Soon after, they were arrested and jailed again in the capital of Laos. This was one of the lowest points in my life -- my mind and body felt completely drained, and I felt like a failure. I did everything to help my family get to freedom -- and we came so close. And now my family was thrown in jail just a short distance from the South Korean embassy.

I went back and forth between the police station and immigration office, desperately trying to get my family out ... but I didn't have enough money to pay the bribes. I lost all hope.

At that moment, I heard a man's voice asking me: "What's wrong?" I was so surprised that a total stranger cared enough to ask. He would only give me his first name. With my broken English and a dictionary, I explained the situation, and without hesitating, the man went to the ATM and paid the rest of the money for my family and two other North Koreans to get out of jail.

I thanked him with all my heart, and then I asked him, "Why are you helping me?" ... "I'm not helping you," he said. "I'm helping the North Korean people."

I realized that this was a symbolic moment in my life. The kind stranger symbolized new hope for me and other North Koreans when we needed it the most. He 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.

Eventually, after our long journey, my family and I were reunited in South Korea.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hyeonseo Lee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT