Hyeonseo Lee

North Korean Defector & Refugee

  • Hyenseo Lee in the wall street journal

A Defectors's Tale: Lee Hyeon-seo



For North Korea defectors living in South Korea, life can be very harsh. Unemployment rates are high and stories of depression and abuse are common. The struggle to adjust to a totally different social and economic order, often in the face of discrimination, is made all the harder in a society that relies on contacts and familial roots.

Yet there are success stories, including the recent appointment of a North Korean to a high-level government post under the Unification Ministry.

Another North Korean working for the Unification Ministry is Lee Hyeon-seo. Ms. Lee was also one of the North Koreans chosen for the “English for the Future” program sponsored by the British Embassy in Seoul.

We asked her to write about her defection from the North, her experiences in adjusting to life in the South and what she does now.

Here’s her essay:

LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE: A North Korean’s Account of Life in South Korea

By Lee Hyeon-seo

There are people who are destined to embrace endless pain and suffering, and there are people who desire to dream. Everybody dreams, of course. But does anybody desperately want to dream more than the people of North Korea? Their lives are spent inside a virtual prison, without knowing whether they will be subject to oppression, and without even knowing what human rights are.

I defected to South Korea in search of freedom of speech and movement. I had longed to put my feet on this soil, even in my dreams. After a long time in China, in January 2008 I finally arrived at Incheon International Airport in South Korea. My heart was pounding violently as I went inside the immigration office at the airport. I struggled to gather enough courage, wondering how I would start my speech and how weird I would look in their eyes.

I declared that I was a North Korean seeking asylum and was quickly ushered into another room. Then two men suddenly appeared who seemed to be senior officials. They closely checked my documents and began to ask me if I was actually Chinese. They informed me that I would be incarcerated for an unspecified period of time and then deported back to China if I was in violation of Korean law. Moreover, if the Chinese government learned that I was not actually a Chinese citizen, I would be jailed, heavily fined and then deported again: back to North Korea. I resisted the pressure and asked the officials to call the National Intelligence Service. After three hours, I left the airport in an NIS car and traveled to downtown Seoul.

Four months later, after I had been through my orientation for life in South Korea, I entered the house where I would be living. I found nothing; no TV set, no furniture, not even a spoon, I felt empty. I started out with mixed feelings of fear and excitement, but settling down turned out to be far more challenging than I had expected. I realized there was a wide gap between North and South, ranging from educational background to cultural and linguistic differences. We are a racially homogeneous people on the outside, but inside we have become very different as a result of the 63 years of division.

Among the difficulties I encountered, economic problems were the worst. I found that financial hardships could limit one’s ability to realize one’s dream, no matter how desperate and earnest you are. I am grateful for all the help the South Korean government offered through various welfare programs, but it fell far short of what was needed since we defectors have to start from scratch. Prejudice against North Koreans and icy stares were other obstacles that were hard to cope with. There were times when I felt alienated, thinking that I would eventually die as a stranger in a country where people share the same ancestry. I even went through an identity crisis: Am I South Korean? North Korean? Or Chinese? There was no country I could proudly call my own. Sometimes I thought it would be so much easier to return to China.

After a year of confusion and disorder, I finally managed to find meaning in my new life. Then one day, I heard that my mom and brother in North Korea had been targeted by the authorities and were to be forcibly moved to a remote area. I agonized over the issue for a while and decided to go back for them.

I sneaked in through the Chinese border and managed to help them escape. We traveled to the border with Laos and met a broker who I paid to take them to the South Korean Embassy in Vientiane, the capital of the country. But on my way to the airport to return to South Korea I received a call that my family had been caught as they crossed the border. When I heard this, I felt shattered.

I entered Laos without any knowledge about the country; I spoke no English and had no clue where my family had been taken. Again, I felt powerless and frustrated, facing the reality that there was no one to help me. After nearly 50 days of going back and forth between the Immigration Office and the National Police Agency and after paying fines, I was able to meet my family again. Eventually we got to the South Korean Embassy.

I consider myself lucky because while I was in Laos, I received a lot of help from various people. That gave me the strength to keep going. Once I asked an Australian why he was helping me. He said he wasn’t particularly helping me but helping North Koreans—the poor and helpless. That’s when my view of the world changed and I realized there were many good people on this planet. I also realized how precious life is.

Here in South Korea, I’m continuing to learn English in order to boost my prospects. When North Korean defectors try to get a job to stabilize their lives, their lack of English is a handicap. It was the same story while I was living in China. It took an enormous amount of time and enthusiasm to learn Chinese. I never thought I would be under this much stress about language in South Korea.

I also took accounting classes at different institutes and obtained the certifications needed for work. Doing all this, including working part-time jobs, exhausted me but I knew I had to keep going. In 2011, my hard work paid off when I was admitted to the Chinese language department of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (by special admission). I chose the language as my major hoping that I would be able to take part in ever increasing trade with China.

I’ve also been working at South Korea’s Ministry of Unification as a student journalist alongside South Korean college students. I write articles about the relationship between North and South Korea as well as the possibility for reunification. The issue of reunification of South and North Korea has always interested me and
I can’t really believe I’ve had the opportunity to work at the ministry. Furthermore, I was chosen among 50 college students who had escaped from North Korea for the "English for the Future" program sponsored by the British Embassy in Seoul, which helps me keep up my English studies.

I also continue to do some volunteer work, which I started out of gratitude for all the aid I have received since I came here and of hope to return the favor to other people in need.

Occasionally, I am surprised that I have changed so much and so quickly. I know that this didn’t come easily and I feel that there’s much more to be done to realize my dream. That makes me scared and depressed at times but I do believe when there’s a dream, there’s a future. In reality, Koreans’ long-cherished desire of unification seems more distant, with the prospects getting bleaker as the economic gap between the two Koreas gets evermore wider.

Still, I will do my best in my position to prepare for the day when the two Koreas become one. And I hope, with more hard work, I can serve as an example for others to come to this land to follow their dream.

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