Misery is their lot
> Bestselling author and activist Lee Hyeonseo warns of bleak choices facing North Korean women who managed to flee their country
says, usually sold to men in the countryside. Families are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for brides for otherwise ineligible bachelors. This, too, can end in abject misery.
“Some of these trafficked North Korean women commit suicide, while others hold onto a sliver of hope that they will eventually escape. Almost none of them succeed,” Lee says.
Her own story is one of remarkable survival against the odds.
From public executions and corpses lying on the streets to family gatherings and playing with friends, Lee’s memories of her childhood are a patchwork of the ordinary and the horrifying – and yet, she says, it was all normal in North Korea.
“The sad truth for most North Koreans is that they are brainwashed to think that their complete lack of freedom and human rights is normal,” she says.
For her, the coil of indoctrination unravelled gradually. She grew up on the border – the neon lights of China visible just across the Yalu River.
“My country was completely dark, even though we were supposedly superior,” she explains. “Living so close to China also allowed me to secretly watch Chinese TV channels, which opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
A nationwide famine, known as the ‘Arduous March’, also forced her to reconsider the rhetoric of the regime.
“In my hometown of Hyesan, I could see dead bodies on the streets. The smell of decomposing flesh made me feel sick and gave me goosebumps,” she recalls. It is estimated hundreds of thousands died.
Lee was just 17 when she illegally crossed the river into China, planning on just a short visit. Instead, she ended up on a decade-long odyssey, during which she assumed multiple identities, evaded state crackdowns on North Koreans, and endured betrayals and beatings.
In 2008, she arrived in Seoul and was granted asylum, before going on to guide her family from North Korea to freedom too. She is now married to an American, whom she met in the city.
Now, she is determined to use her experiences to bring about change.
She says: “It’s essential that the people who have been oppressed speak out. It’s the most effective way to compel the international community to help.” – AFP