I saw my first execution at seven years old — and I still live in fear of my life
Hyeonseo Lee defected from North Korea in 1997 and is now determined to tell the world about the brutality of the regime
The astonishing, not to say extremely disturbing, facts of Hyeonseo Lee’s past have somehow failed to leave their mark on her tiny, physical presence. Here she is now — with a polite, opaque smile on her face — standing sturdily in chunky shoes on the 17th floor of The Times building, staring down over London.
Like everywhere else she’s been on her world travels these past few years, the British capital looks startlingly unlike the degenerate, corpse-strewn and famine-stricken wasteland that, while growing up in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, she was told everywhere except for North Korea resembled.
Lee defected from that country in December 1997, by accident. She was 17. To any westerner, the things she witnessed as a child — things witnessed by everyone who grows up in North Korea — are very close to being completely beyond comprehension: grotesque but also somehow laughable and illogical.
One might expect her life post-defection to have taken a turn for the better, but the following ten years, as an illegal immigrant in China, were difficult, she says. She missed her family and was perpetually afraid. Her mental health faltered once or twice. If she had been caught, she would have been deported to her home country and an uncertain future, possibly a prison camp. Lee says she is dismayed by “China’s inhumanity in refusing to treat escaped North Koreans as asylum seekers”.
She finally found political asylum herself, through a circuitous route, in South Korea in 2008. It wasn’t easy — the South Koreans took her for Chinese and refused to believe that she was a defector.
She had high hopes when Kim Jong Un, the current incumbent, came to power. This was in 2011. Kim is in his early thirties, only a few years younger than Lee, and he was educated in Switzerland. It wasn’t impossible that he would want to relax the state’s totalitarian grip on its people, but no such luck. “He’s even more extreme than his father.”
When Lee was seven, she watched her first execution. Viewing executions has been mandatory for school children in North Korea for a number of years, but now things are far worse, she says. “Now they shoot people dead, just like that, in the middle of the day. He’s murdered horribly to show the people: ‘Don’t treat me like a young kid.’ Killing people is propaganda. Do you think,” she asks me, “that tyranny can last for ever?” It can certainly last a lifetime, I say. “I hope he dies soon,” she decides. “I want for him to get killed.”
London is a pit stop. She’s here to meet as many politically influential people as she can on this, her first book tour, in the hope of redirecting some of the enormous amount of attention that North Korea’s nuclear programme generates abroad to the more basic problem of state-controlled and normalised human suffering in that country.
Lee’s life story is intricate. Her autobiography follows on from a TED talk two years ago (it went viral) at about the same time that she went on to become one of two defectors to speak at the UN’s first, and so far only, conference about human rights in North Korea.
Unsurprisingly, the conference angered the North Korean government: a statement was released in which Lee was described as a “criminal”. “I’ve given a lot of speeches,” she says. “I’m scared sometimes, what they’re going to do to me.”
After her TED talk, threatening anonymous messages began to appear in her email account. They said things like: “You will be sent to North Korea and be tortured severely until the end.” It’s not hyperbole to speculate that Lee’s life is at risk. She wants to leave South Korea now to live and study in the States. America is in a better position to protect her, she says.
In South Korea — where, as in parts of China, North Korea has set up a spy network — defectors from the North have been assassinated. “The worst thing they could do,” says Lee, as if to say that at least the tentacles of the world’s last totalitarian state can only do so much harm, “would be to kill me.”
Hers is a fascinating book. In broad terms, her story is this: Lee was born into a family relatively high up in North Korea’s complicated caste system which, depending on what your father’s family was doing around 1948, the year of the founding of the state, ranks you in one of 51 social categories, from the ruling Kim party, down — although there is no way to find out what your ranking is.
“If your grandfather was descended from workers and peasants and fought on the right side in the Korean War, your family would be classified as loyal,” she explains. “If your ancestors included landlords or officials who worked for the Japanese during the colonial occupation or had fled during the Korean war, your family would be categorized as hostile.”
People in the hostile class make up about 40 per cent of the population. Fortunately for the young Lee, her grandfather became a communist hero for infiltrating the Japanese police when Korea was a Japanese colony.
However, life in North Korea is full of pain, even for the privileged. When she was ten, Lee’s adoptive father committed suicide in hospital. He’d been arrested and interred after being caught illegally crossing back over the Friendship Bridge from China. It’s unclear how he came to be in hospital, but he must have understood that his situation was dangerous enough for either him or his family to merit his taking a Valium overdose. The authorities subsequently sent Lee’s mother a letter informing her that her husband had been dismissed from his job.
Lee’s description of everyday life in an absurd state is compelling. Here’s a sadistic, cruel, inhuman regime that at the same time reveals itself to be idiotic and childish in its semi-lunatic and arbitrary rule-making. Hair dye: banned. Depression: doesn’t exist. Leaving your house without a pin of the head of state on your clothing: dangerously illegal. There isn’t a household where a portrait of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, doesn’t hang in prime position.
Lee says that to clean it, “we used a special cloth provided by the government which could not be used for cleaning anything else’’. Pointing at such a painting is an act of dangerous disrespect. In the event of a house fire, saving your portrait over, say, your pet or your valuables buys you kudos. They have the internet in North Korea now, except that it’s called Bright Star, but only a handful of licensed individuals have access. It is actually a sealed internal propaganda vehicle that is controlled by the head of state and his coterie.
“I really thought that they were gods,” says Lee. “I really thought they didn’t go to the bathroom, they didn’t smoke or drink, or sleep with women. I believed that. Because the moment you are born you are fed propaganda. I am sure that more than 90 per cent of people believe. I remember thinking, ‘Why do people always disappear in the middle of the night, instead of the daytime?’ It was a real question mark to me. It is very common for people to disappear like that.
“Everybody knew they were being taken to prison camps. So why not just take them in the day? For us it was normal life. I didn’t even think, or have any reason to think, that these things were bad or evil. We thought that’s what human beings should do. We did everything the government wanted. We are like machines, like robots, in North Korea.”
From elementary school upwards, Lee underwent what was called “life-purification time”. Kim Jong Il introduced this concept in 1974: public so-called self-criticism sessions in which participants confess something to the assembled crowd then denounce another person.
As part of the socialist youth league, Lee helped to plant rice shoots. She sang patriotic songs, odes to North Korean achievements such as Vinylon, a synthetic fibre used in uniforms. She took part in mass games but mainly in practising for them all year long. Lee envisaged for herself a career as an accordion player.
She was 12 when in 1992 the government launched a campaign called “Let us eat two meals a day” — healthier than eating three, it alleged. The truth was that the collapse, three years earlier, of the country’s great benefactor, the Soviet Union, had tipped North Korea into famine. Rations dwindled.
The state instructed children to use their own excrement as fertilizer. Lee remembers hearing a story about an elderly man who had cut up and eaten a child. Looking back, she thinks it was probably true. She remembers once looking down the hole of a squat toilet and seeing a white plastic bag — it was wrapped around a dead baby.
For the state, the most undesirable consequence of the continuing famine has been the emergence of a middle class, a black market capitalist society. “Until 2000 most people who defected did so to support their families,” says Lee. “That’s why 70 to 80 per cent of them were women. In North Korea it is mandatory for men to go to work in factories but they make no money. It was left to the women to make money.”
Lee’s mother made a fairly tidy business out of illegally importing goods from China; the family lived right by the border. Their house looked on to the waist deep, 11 yard-wide Yalu river that lapped at China’s border. Her mother did a spell of exporting crystal methamphetamine, but turned down a lucrative deal illegally shipping over the border the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War. “There’s been a small revolution in the power women have,” says Lee. “A man without a wife can’t survive.”
Public executions tend to come in waves in North Korea and Lee remembers, in 1994, when Kim Il Sung died, people being publicly hanged for having, it was suspected, feigned tears at his passing. She remembers hearing of girls sent to prison camp for listening to South Korean pop and “of an entire family being sent to a collective farm in the mountains after one of its members rolled a cigarette using a square of cut newspaper without noticing that the great leader’s face was printed on the other side’’.
It is hard to understand that it was in this atmosphere that Lee decided to run away. But she seems to have been curious, perhaps reckless too, and the idea — put to her by a friend — of slipping over the border into China gave her a kick. Black marketeers, like Lee’s mother, had discreet understandings with border guards. Lee waded across one night with some notion of visiting her cousins but chose never to return when she began to understand the political implications of what she had done.
It’s commonplace in North Korea for the families left behind by defectors to be punished. How did Lee’s family escape that fate? “They just said one day, ‘She’s gone missing.’ It’s possible they thought that I had been smuggled out of the country by a human trafficker.”
She tells the story of a friend who had been sold to a Chinese man by traffickers and finally, ten years into her ordeal, gave herself up as an illegal alien to the Chinese police — she wanted to go home. The friend was deported and sent to a labour camp. Two years later she was reunited with what remained of her family.
Life in China was lived in the shadows of anonymity, under threat of deportation. She made several botched attempts to get her mother and brother across. In the end she succeeded. In South Korea, where she’s now based, she’s been offered bodyguards. She’s declined. “How can I know you are a real bodyguard or a spy? They have needles. There is poison. They have all sorts of small weapons.”
It was only after Lee arrived in South Korea that she became aware of human rights. In China they are curtailed. “Until 2008 I didn’t know what they were.” Turning things over in her mind she began to feel angry.
“You can’t say ‘genocide’, but it’s innocent people — it’s quite close to genocide. The reason people are killed is totally ridiculous to me. One girl told me that her brother was executed when he was caught by border guards bringing two kilos of rice from China. He was executed as an example. It is shameful nonsense. They said the rest of the world were slaves when all along we were the slaves. The more I find out about my country the more angry I get. Angry, angry, angry.”
In South Korea, North Koreans are regarded as second class citizens. And there is a lot of grief that comes with the realisation that you’ve been lied to, says Lee.
“For my mother it’s still hard. Being brainwashed is so weird. She lived in North Korea for more than 50 years — that means 50 years of brainwashing. It’s hard for her to accept, for example, the history of the Korean War. ‘The Korean War started by American bastards who attacked my country in the middle of the night, at 3am, while the North Koreans were asleep.’ That’s a really common sentence. We believed it strongly.”
It’s best not to believe most of what you read about North Korea anyway, she says: “You can’t trust what any media reports about the country because there is no way to check the facts. A general is executed and then a few months later he appears again. It happens all the time. It’s like recycling.”
She can’t believe she can dare to say this — that’s how much she used to idolise him — but what she’d really like to do now is sit down with Kim Jong Un. “I would say: ‘I really want to know your thoughts. Don’t you feel sad? Do you really think I’m lying? Please give your people freedom. Don’t you have enough money by now?’” She would repeat the question she put to me about the longevity of tyranny and tell him, firmly, “No, it can’t last for ever.”