Hyeonseo Lee saw her first public execution at age 7. A child growing up in North Korea, the moment affected her, but she didn’t have the frame of reference to understand the government repression going on around her.
“When I was little, I thought my country was the best on the planet,” she says in Session 10 of TED2012. “I was very proud … I often wondered about the outside world, but I thought I would spend my life in North Korea.”
In the 1990s, a famine struck North Korea, killing an estimated million people. And while Lee’s family was able to eat, in 1995, her mom brought home a girl. With the girl was a letter that read, “When you read this, our family members will not exist in this world because we have not eaten.”
“I was so shocked,” says Lee. “This was the first time that I heard people in my country were suffering.”
She began to hear of people surviving by eating grass and tree bark. While she lived only across a river from the Chinese border — close enough to see their lights, and wonder why her side was so dark — the bodies floating in the river of drowned escapees was enough to deter escape.
Lee can’t share a lot of details of how she left North Korea — she can only say that at some point, she was sent to stay with distant relatives. She thought she’d see her immediate family again soon. That wouldn’t happen for another 14 years.
Lee lived in China, essentially on her own, posing as if she were Chinese so that she wouldn’t be sent back to North Korea.
“One day, my worst nightmare came true,” says Lee. She was caught by the Chinese police. Someone had accused her of being North Korean, and she was subjected to brutal tests of her ability to speak Chinese. “I was so scared, I thought my heart would explode.”
Luckily, she passed the test and felt a surge of relief when the officers said: “She isn’t North Korean.”
“Every year, countless North Koreans are caught in China, sent back, tortured, imprisoned, publicly executed … It was a miracle,” says Lee. “It’s tragic that North Koreans have to hide their identity just to survive. Even after getting out, their whole world can be turned upside down.”
Ten years later, Lee started life over again in South Korea, learning a new culture and going to university. But soon, she received another panic in the form of a telephone call. North Korean officials had intercepted money sent to her family. She needed to help them escape, and quick.
On the stage, Lee narrates the incredible journey to get her family out. When they were caught by Chinese police, Lee managed to convince them that her family was “these deaf and dumb people that I am shepherding.” It worked, and Lee’s family made it through China and into southeast Asia. But then they were arrested for border crossing.
“This was one of the lowest points in my life,” says Lee. “I did everything to help my family to get to freedom and we came so close. But they were thrown in jail just a short distance from the South Korean embassy.”
It was the kindess of a stranger that saved them. A random man asked Lee what was wrong. He took her to an ATM and gave her money to pay her family’s way out of jail. When she asked him why, he said: “I’m not helping you, I’m helping North Korean people.”
Lee’s story is powerful and a good reminder that getting to freedom is only half the battle.