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When I was little, I thought my country was the best on the planet, and I grew up singing a song called "Nothing To Envy." And I was very proud. In school, we spent a lot of time studying the history of Kim Il-Sung, but we never learned much about the outside world, except that America, South Korea, Japan are the enemies. Although I often wondered about the outside world, I thought I would spend my entire life in North Korea, until everything suddenly changed.
But one day, in 1995, my mom brought home a letter from a coworker's sister. It read, "When you read this, all five family members will not exist in this world, because we haven't eaten for the past two weeks. We are lying on the floor together, and our bodies are so weak we are ready to die."
I was so shocked. This was the first time I heard that people in my country were suffering. Soon after, when I was walking past a train station, I saw something terrible that I can't erase from my memory. A lifeless woman was lying on the ground, while an emaciated child in her arms just stared helplessly at his mother's face. But nobody helped them, because they were so focused on taking care of themselves and their families.
A huge famine hit North Korea in the mid-1990s. Ultimately, more than a million North Koreans died during the famine, and many only survived by eating grass, bugs and tree bark. Power outages also became more and more frequent, so everything around me was completely dark at night except for the sea of lights in China, just across the river from my home. I always wondered why they had lights but we didn't. This is a satellite picture showing North Korea at night compared to neighbors.
This is the Amrok River, which serves as a part of the border between North Korea and China. As you can see, the river can be very narrow at certain points, allowing North Koreans to secretly cross. But many die. Sometimes, I saw dead bodies floating down the river. I can't reveal many details [about] how I left North Korea, but I only can say that during the ugly years of the famine I was sent to China to live with distant relatives. But I only thought that I would be separated from my family for a short time. I could have never imagined that it would take 14 years to live together.
In China, it was hard living as a young girl without my family. I had no idea what life was going to be like as a North Korean refugee, but I soon learned it's not only extremely difficult, it's also very dangerous, since North Korean refugees are considered in China as illegal migrants. So I was living in constant fear that my identity could be revealed, and I would be repatriated to a horrible fate back in North Korea.
One day, my worst nightmare came true, when I was caught by the Chinese police and brought to the police station for interrogation. Someone had accused me of being North Korean, so they tested my Chinese language abilities and asked me tons of questions. I was so scared, I thought my heart was going to explode. If anything seemed unnatural, I could be imprisoned and repatriated. I thought my life was over, but I managed to control all the emotions inside me and answer the questions. After they finished questioning me, one official said to another, "This was a false report. She's not North Korean." And they let me go. It was a miracle.
Some North Koreans in China seek asylum in foreign embassies, but many can be caught by the Chinese police and repatriated. These girls were so lucky. Even though they were caught, they were eventually released after heavy international pressure. These North Koreans were not so lucky. Every year, countless North Koreans are caught in China and repatriated to North Korea, where they can be tortured, imprisoned or publicly executed.
Even though I was really fortunate to get out, many other North Koreans have not been so lucky. It's tragic that North Koreans have to hide their identities and struggle so hard just to survive. Even after learning a new language and getting a job, their whole world can be turned upside down in an instant. That's why, after 10 years of hiding my identity, I decided to risk going to South Korea, and I started a new life yet again.
Settling down in South Korea was a lot more challenging than I had expected. English was so important in South Korea, so I had to start learning my third language. Also, I realized there was a wide gap between North and South. We are all Korean, but inside, we have become very different due to 67 years of division. I even went through an identity crisis. Am I South Korean or North Korean? Where am I from? Who am I? Suddenly, there was no country I could proudly call my own.
Just as I was starting to get used to my new life, I received a shocking phone call. The North Korean authorities intercepted some money that I sent to my family, and, as a punishment, my family was going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside. They had to get out quickly, so I started planning how to help them escape.
North Koreans have to travel incredible distances on the path to freedom. It's almost impossible to cross the border between North Korea and South Korea, so, ironically, I took a flight back to China and I headed toward the North Korean border. Since my family couldn't speak Chinese, I had to guide them, somehow, through more than 2,000 miles in China and then into Southeast Asia. The journey by bus took one week, and we were almost caught several times. One time, our bus was stopped and boarded by a Chinese police officer. He took everyone's I.D. cards, and he started asking them questions. Since my family couldn't understand Chinese, I thought my family was going to be arrested. As the Chinese officer approached my family, I impulsively stood up, and I told him that these are deaf and dumb people that I was chaperoning. He looked at me suspiciously, but luckily he believed me.
We made it all the way to the border of Laos, but I had to spend almost all my money to bribe the border guards in Laos. But even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed for illegal border crossing. After I paid the fine and bribe, my family was released in one month, but soon after, my family was arrested and jailed again in the capital of Laos.
This was one of the lowest points in my life. I did everything to get my family to freedom, and we came so close, but my family was thrown in jail just a short distance from the South Korean embassy. I went back and forth between the immigration office and the police station, desperately trying to get my family out, but I didn't have enough money to pay a bribe or fine anymore. I lost all hope.
I was so surprised that a total stranger cared enough to ask. In my broken English, and with a dictionary, I explained the situation, and without hesitating, the man went to the ATM and he paid the rest of the money for my family and two other North Koreans to get out of jail.
I realized that this was a symbolic moment in my life. The kind stranger symbolized new hope for me and the North Korean people when we needed it most, and he showed me the kindness of strangers and the support of the international community are truly the rays of hope we North Korean people need.
Eventually, after our long journey, my family and I were reunited in South Korea, but getting to freedom is only half the battle. Many North Koreans are separated from their families, and when they arrive in a new country, they start with little or no money. So we can benefit from the international community for education, English language training, job training, and more. We can also act as a bridge between the people inside North Korea and the outside world, because many of us stay in contact with family members still inside, and we send information and money that is helping to change North Korea from inside.
I've been so lucky, received so much help and inspiration in my life, so I want to help give aspiring North Koreans a chance to prosper with international support. I'm confident that you will see more and more North Koreans succeeding all over the world, including the TED stage.
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As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee thought her country was “the best on the planet.” It wasn't until the famine of the 90s that she began to wonder. She escaped the country at 14, to begin a life in hiding, as a refugee in China. Hers is a harrowing, personal tale of survival and hope -- and a powerful reminder of those who face constant danger, even when the border is far behind.
Born in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee left for China in 1997. Now living in South Korea, she has become an activist for fellow refugees. Full bio »