In 1997 a seventeen-year-old girl crossed a river in the middle of the night, and did not see her family again for over ten years.
That girl was Hyeonseo Lee, and the river was the Yalu, which marks the border between North Korea and China. For the next decade, Lee lived the life of a fugitive, adopting new names and using fake IDs as she made her way across China and finally, miraculously, to Seoul-Incheon airport in South Korea.
Lee’s heart-breaking story to reunite with her mother and brother is told in The Girl With Seven Names (reviewed by CapX), and as a human rights activist she has worked to bring the tragic oppression of North Korea into mainstream Western consciousness. This week, she took part in a live Q&A at The Guardian, speaking on topics ranging from North Korea’s relations with China to how to cross the Yalu River.
Two conflicting themes emerge from Lee’s answers, and from the far more nuanced portrayal in her book. The first is the complete and utter level of control the North Korean state inflicts on its citizens. Reading the comments before the Q&A began, it seemed that some readers dramatically underestimated the total restriction of information and personal freedom. One asked how the state could maintain such control in a world of data and information. Lee’s response is chilling:
“When I was in North Korea, a man simply said to his friend while they were drinking, ‘This system is unfair.’ His whole family soon disappeared in the middle of the night and we never heard from them again.”
Later, she makes it clear that any kind of personal independence or enterprise is prohibited:
“Ordinary North Korean citizens are not allowed to start their own businesses freely, access information on the internet or from the outside world, or trade with neighbouring countries. This is why the North Korean people are suffering.”
At the same time, for half a century North Korean citizens have been isolated from awareness of how appalling their situation is. They truly believe in the eternal benevolence of their Great Leaders. In her book, Lee describes how her father risked his life to rescue the sacred portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il-sung from their burning house. He and the rest of her family had been psychologically conditioned to believe such trinkets were literally worth dying for.
Lee also recounts her horror upon meeting relatives in China and discovering they did not share her certainty that North Korea was the greatest country in the world and a global powerhouse. That a girl who had grown up accustomed to abject poverty, starvation, bribery, smuggling, and shortages of basic goods could still believe North Korea’s system of government was superior to all others reveals how deep the indoctrination runs.
From loudspeakers in schools and workplaces to 24/7 TV coverage, the North Korean government expertly disseminates misinformation. Responding to a question on North Korean students, Lee says “North Koreans are forced to spend so much time memorising the fake history of our dictators and other propaganda, so are at a huge disadvantage”, and when asked whether they really believe the state propaganda, she answers:
“The North Korean regime does not allow its people to learn much about the outside world, and there is a lot of propaganda that says that the outside world is a dark and dangerous place.
We are taught to hate America the most. I grew up learning that South Koreans were American slaves and South Korean school children were tortured by Americans.”
But things are changing. This is the second, more uplifting motif that shines through Lee’s writing. The sheer pace of technological progress, especially north and south of North Korea’s iron-bound borders, has made keeping information out of the Hermit Kingdom a Sisyphean task. People manipulate their TV aerials to pick up channels from China and South Korea. The Chinese border offers unrestricted cell phone reception. Black-market traders hawk pirated videos and DVDs of Western films. (Another famous defector and activist, Yeonmi Park, has spoken about how watching a bootlegged DVD of Titanic made her start questioning the lies she had been taught about America.)
And then there is the internet. While the North Korean web is buffered by a firewall even more powerful than China’s, it does exist, and although the state can limit access, it cannot entirely eliminate the flow of information from the outside. It is not a mass popular uprising but this gradual information tide that, Lee thinks, will liberate North Korea:
“As more and more people wake up and doubt the propaganda, the North Korean regime will be forced to change. That’s why it’s crucial for the international community to continue sending the information about the outside world.”
There are other signs of hope. In December, I wrote about a remarkable start-up programme, in which a select group of North Koreans set off to learn business skills from entrepreneurs in Singapore. The development of special economic zones is also on the horizon, as the government cautiously runs controlled experiments with capitalism. Whether or not these succeed, the more North Koreans are exposed to ideas and goods from the outside world, the weaker the regime’s grip on them will grow.
This is the underlying message of Hyeonseo Lee’s book, and of every defector who has dared to speak out. While news about North Korea primarily focusses on the nation’s nuclear capacities and military aggression, there is a deeper, more human story to be told, of 25 million people who are on the cusp of learning their rights. That is why accounts like Lee’s are so compelling. And it’s why, even when panic over nuclear missiles dies down, we should not take our eyes off North Korea.