Global Issues

TED Weekends says freedom is only half the battle

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TED speaker Hyeonseo Lee (right) meets Dick Stolp (left), the stranger who gave her a significant amount of cash to help get her family out of jail four years ago. Photo: SBS

Hyeonseo Lee’s story is a tale bound to pull at your heartstrings. She’s a North Korean refugee — and while helping her family flee the country in 2009, Lee’s mother and brother were detained in a Laos prison.  Hyeonseo Lee: My escape from North Korea Hyeonseo Lee: My escape from North Korea At TED2013, Lee described how it was an enormously generous gift from a stranger that helped her family to safety.

This week’s TED Weekends on the Huffington Post takes a look at this moving story and considers the latest twist in the tale. After Lee’s TED Talk was posted, a television station tracked down the stranger she spoke of and reunited the two on air.

Below, find three essays from TED Weekends, thinking more about Lee, North Korea and personal kindness in the face of desperation. It’s a reminder to us all to see individual stories amongst wider political issues.

Thu-Huong Ha: The Story of an Incredible Escape from North Korea

A total stranger helped Hyeonseo Lee pay her mother and brother’s way out of jail as they fled North Korea. Now, four years later, Lee has been reunited with that stranger, getting the chance to thank him in person.

In Lee’s heart-wrenching TED2013 talk, “My escape from North Korea,” she describes defecting from North Korea in the late ’90s. But as she describes in the second half of her talk, after years of hiding she returned to China to help her family make their own escape. When her mother and brother were captured in Vientiane, Laos, and jailed for illegal border crossing, Lee describes how, out of money and desperate for a solution, she was approached by a foreigner. After hearing Lee’s story, this stranger withdrew a large sum of cash — £645 to be exact — from an ATM. With the money to use as a bribe, Lee’s family was able to escape. Read the full essay »

John Feffer: The Horrors of the North Korean Prison System

I was nearly at the end of a presentation on the North Korean prison camp system, when the last person in the audience grasped the microphone to ask a question. His question was so unexpected that I was literally blindsided.

Up to that point, I’d already described the conditions inside North Korea’s prison camps as “odious” and “systematic,” which qualified them as a crime against humanity. I’d already talked about the nearly complete absence of civil society inside North Korea, which distinguishes the country from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Communist era. I’d already mentioned my own frustrations about strategies to address the country’s human rights violations and concluded by supporting both name-and-shame efforts and governmental engagement with Pyongyang as a precondition to improving the lives of all North Koreans, including (one day) those in the prison camps.

I’d already answered half a dozen questions. But this last question threw me for a loop.  Read the full essay »

Janis Powers: North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal: A Farce?

The most poignant part of Hyeonseo Lee’s TED Talk was her mention of the Good Samaritan who assisted with the release of her family from a prison in Laos. Many of us would like to see ourselves as this man. We hear the harrowing tales of North Korean refugees and we want to help. Yet our ability to comprehend the dynamics in the Korean peninsula is limited by the fact that we are half a world away.

Motivated by this spirit of curiosity, I took a 15-hour flight from Dallas to Seoul earlier this month. After spending five nights in Seoul and a day touring the DMZ, my major takeaway is that North Korea is an impenetrable fortress that everyone wants to look at, but no one cares to touch. Pyongyang has alienated most of the global community with its focus on military supremacy, at the expense of the lives of it citizens. Read the full essay »