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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT