North Korea is the "most brain-washed country in the world," said Hyeonseo Lee, but the real tragedy is that North Koreans don't even realize the extent of the lies their government tells them. "They have nothing to compare their lives to," said Lee, a defector from the North who now lives in Seoul, South Korea. Speaking to a LAWAC Global Café breakfast meeting, Lee said that with no internet, no cellphones, and no satellite television, few North Koreans can imagine what life is like outside. It wasn't until people started dying in the street from hunger during the famine that started in 1995 that Lee began to have doubts - two years later she escaped across the border to China, and finally made her way to South Korea.
In North Korea, she said, "all my life decisions were made by the regime," and she could not trust anybody because "even friends and neighbors can be spies... We never learned to help each other, we learned to criticize and to spy on each other." She said that even today "it is weird for me to say 'I love you mom' to my mother, because we never did that." As she grew up, she was taught that Americans were not human beings at all, and they were depicted as ugly creatures with big noses - "the government always referred to them as "American bastards," not just "Americans."
Even in China her problems were not over. She constantly risked being exposed as a North Korean defector, which would have meant being deported back to her country, possibly to face prison or other punishment. With little protection, many of the North Korean women in China were sold as brides or as sex workers. But after learning fluent Mandarin and getting Chinese residency papers - "in China if you have money you can buy anything," she said - Lee managed to find work and earn some money, and finally made her way to South Korea, where she faced the unexpected problem of persuading the immigration officials that she was indeed North Korean, and not a Chinese impostor. Settled in Seoul, she was later joined by her mother and brother who also escaped - when she first took her mother to a shopping district in Seoul and withdrew some cash from an ATM, her mother wondered how a small person could stand working inside such a small box with no windows, and how he could count the money out so fast. "Imagine a country that can make its people so ignorant that they don't even know what an ATM is!"
Terry McCarthy, President of the Council (left), Hyeonseo Lee, North Korean defector and activist (right)
Asked about what the US can do to help, Lee said "the only way to help North Koreans is to awaken them from their brainwashing." Now that people are smuggling in videos and Chinese cell phones, people are beginning to get some glimpses of the outside world. It is still very dangerous - when she calls her relatives on their illicit cell phones in North Korea, they can only talk for a minute or two and then they turn off the phone, because the regime has scanners to pick up usage of cell phones and will arrest anyone they catch.
On the political front, Lee says she thinks the single party regime will not fall apart any time soon, but she suspects the current leader, Kim Jong Un, will likely be overthrown by the people around him, "because the level of violence and killing around him is too much - everyone is afraid they might be next - he even killed his own uncle (Jang Song Thaek)."
Even Lee is afraid for her life, because she has just written a book about her experiences - The Girl With Seven Names - and has been very outspoken in her criticism of the government in Pyongyang. There are many North Korean spies living in Seoul," she says. She now plans to move to the United States - home of the "American bastards" in North Korean officialese - the only country, ironically, where she feels she will be safe from Pyongyang's reach.