Hyeon-seo Lee – ”My escape from North Korea”
Hyeon-seo Lee, a woman in her 20s, former North Korean refugee starts her story by telling about her childhood in a town near the Chinese border; official state propaganda promoted doctrine that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K) was the ideal nation. However, she was disillusioned during the Great Famine in 1995 when she found out that acquaintance family had died because of malnutrition and when people started dying on the streets. She also recalls recurring power shortages combined to her amazement when “a sea of light” shined from the other side of the Amrok River bordering China, ridiculing official government propaganda about a superior D.P.R.K.
She was sent to China to live with distant relatives, although jeopardy existed for the refugees: she was captured by the Chinese police, however after interrogations they thought she was Chinese instead of refugee and let her go. As she mentions, refugees are considered illegal migrants, thus being returned to DPRK, facing severe punishments or even execution. In 2008 she moved to Seoul, yet the life in the Republic of Korea (R.O.K) was harder than she expected. She was shocked not only by importance of English language, but also the division of Korean people; the cultures have formed differently and the South Korean dialect is full of English-based terms. This led to identity crisis for she couldn’t define her identity.
Her life got even more complicated after her family was under threat of being forcibly moved to a desolate location as punishment for receiving money she had sent back. After they had reached Laos but imprisoned for illegal border crossing, she was astonished when a total stranger to whom she had talked to about her situation went to cashpoint and gave her enough money to bribe her family out. She asked this stranger the motivation for his help, to which he responded: “I’m not helping you. I’m helping North Korean people”, restoring her faith on mankind; the symbolism of the moment that can be summed up with the stranger symbolising new hope for her and her family, thus for the North Korean people in generally. She is today so inspired after all the help she received, that she wants help North Korean people by working for United Nations or so Non-Government Organisation; the refugees can be considered humanitarian link between D.P.R.K and outside world.
The speech of Hyeon-seo Lee in TED.com considering her story is quite similar to the other refugees; famine, police harassment in China and insecure feeling even in south are familiar elements from other refugee biographies and stories, the stories that never stop shocking no matter how many of them one reads. Her speech was posted on TED-website March 20131, and in May the website also posted an article2 about reunion of Lee and her then-unknown benefactor, Australian Dick Stolp, four years after the miraculous event. Stolp, who was in Laos as backpacker tourist, reflects his feeling s by saying he is sincerely delighted that he could make the difference: a person he helped has since helped other people and is motivated to do it in the future. This closure to the TED-broadcast of the most dramatic kind serves as a motivator when dealing with an issue of refugees and improving their conditions, as well as reminding that there is always some hope.
- “Hyeon-seo Lee: My escape from North Korea” http://www.ted.com/talks/hyeonseo_lee_my_escape_from_north_korea.html
- “North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee reunited with the man who saved her family” http://blog.ted.com/2013/05/20/north-korean-defector-hyeonseo-lee-reunited-with-the-man-who-saved-her-family/