Her TED talk has been watched by more than a million people, and now her new autobiography, ‘The Girl With Seven Names’, is introducing people to the highly secretive world of North Korea. Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (28 October – 1 November), Hyeonseo Lee chats with Ayundari Gunansyach about her life over the past 10 years, and the sharp turns it’s taken.
AG: You grew up in North Korea in the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when the country was facing significant economic hardship and troubled diplomatic relations. What was it like growing up in North Korea during this era?
HL: My life seemed pretty normal until the famine started in the mid-1990s. We were completely brainwashed, and cut off from the rest of the world, so most people didn’t complain or think that anything was wrong with our country. We learned that South Koreans were suffering under the heel of the American imperialists, and were the Americans’ slaves, so it was our duty to help liberate them. At the same time, we learned our country was the best in the world. For a long time, I thought the rest of the world was much worse than North Korea, so I thanked our leaders for giving us such a great country. We even have a propaganda song about this that we learn from a young age, called “Nothing to Envy.”
AG: As a child, were you aware of the world outside North Korea? What led to your decision to leave the country, which ultimately meant that you could never go back?
HL: I could have never imagined that I would travel outside of North Korea, and since I believed my country was the best, I didn’t really think about it for many years of my life. Actually, a fortuneteller predicted that I would travel abroad by telling me that “in your life, you’ll eat foreign rice.” I didn’t think much about it then, but in hindsight, she was right.
Once I started noticing people starving and suffering around me, I began to doubt that our country was the best in the world. Since I lived near the border with China, I was very fortunate to see Chinese TV channels secretly on my TV. It was illegal and dangerous to watch them, but I watched them secretly at night by covering my windows with thick blankets. Compared to our only state-run propaganda channel in North Korea, Chinese TV was fascinating and helped me understand that there was a bigger world beyond North Korea. Ultimately, that’s why I decided to leave and explore the outside world.
AG: This year, you published your autobiography, ‘The Girls With Seven Names’, which tells the story of your escape from North Korea. What made you decide that it was time to tell your story?
HL: I never thought I would write my memoir. In South Korea, I decided to speak out against the regime, which included a TED Talk that received millions of views. People started encouraging me to write a book about my life, including some publishers, so I finally decided to do it, and I’m very happy that I did. Sharing stories about North Korea is raising awareness in the international community and inspiring people to fight for a free North Korea. I’m glad more and more defectors are sharing their stories and that people are finally starting to pay attention.
AG: Now a citizen of South Korea, you are free to travel the world – something you could never have dreamed of if you stayed in North Korea. What does this sense of freedom mean to you, now that you have it?
HL: I feel so lucky that I even know about the concept of freedom, since we never learned about this or other concepts like human rights and democracy in North Korea. My favorite aspect of freedom is the ability to explore this big, beautiful world. I’ve been able to visit so many great places, meet amazing people and learn the truth about the world. Restricting a person’s freedom is one of the worst things you can do to a human being, because each person has so much potential, and they have an inherent right to pursue that potential and to find happiness.
AG: Tell us about your new life in South Korea. Do you have any regrets about the choices you’ve made? Are there things you miss about North Korea?
HL: I’ve been very happy recently, as I just completed my undergraduate studies and finally published my memoir. But I sometimes worry about my mom and brother. It was very difficult for them to adjust at first. They both left behind close friends and family, and had originally never considered coming to South Korea until I ask them to come. The transition was especially hard on my mom, who had a close-knit family back in North Korea and missed her brothers and sisters very much. She cried herself to sleep every night for a while after she first arrived in South Korea. But as time passed, things got better.
We even had a few laughs together during the difficult adjustment period regarding the use of new technology. For example, my mom had never used a bank, much less an ATM in North Korea. So when she saw one for the first time in South Korea, she asked me how a little person could work inside the machine with no windows all day. We still have a good laugh about that today. Overall it’s just been a crazy, bewildering experience for her, from the arduous journey to the transition to her new life in South Korea. But she’s doing much better these days.
AG: Looking at the next five years, what do you see yourself focusing your efforts on? Any plans to write more books?
HL: I’m hoping to start an organization that will help promising North Korean defectors to learn English, study abroad and branch out to the international community. I’m also writing another book with female North Korean defectors about the issues that we’ve faced in North Korea, China, Southeast Asia (Laos/Thailand) and South Korea. I want to keep writing and speaking out against the regime in the hope that with enough support from the international community, we can pressure North Korea to change.
AG: People from the outside world know so little about North Korea – and most of what they do understand is not always positive. How do people tend to react when you tell them that you’re from North Korea?
HL: Most defectors in South Korea pretend to be South Korean in order to fit in and avoid prejudice or alienation. So I usually don’t tell people that I’m a North Korean defector, although it’s hard to hide it these days due to my public speeches and interviews. I’m also happy that South Koreans’ attitudes towards defectors are beginning to change in a positive way, especially among the younger generations. As more defectors speak out and share their stories, more South Koreans are beginning to see us as fellow Koreans who happened to be very unlucky to be born in such a terrible dictatorship.
AG: You’re going to be joining this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, taking part in a number of events including Pecha Kucha and the highly popular Women of Letters series, as well as your main program sessions. What are you looking forward to most as part of coming Bali?
HL: I’m extremely excited to come! This is my first time in Bali, but I’m sure it won’t be my last. I’ve heard from so many Koreans and foreigners that Bali and Indonesia in general are beautiful places, so I can’t wait to explore the area around the festival. It’s tragic that most North Koreans will never be able to experience the beauty of Indonesia because the regime keeps them as brainwashed slaves, without any freedom to travel or even meet foreigners. The festival looks great and there are many people coming who I want to meet, so I can’t wait until I arrive!
Hyeonseo Lee joins more than 165 authors from more than 25 countries as part of the 12th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, set to descend on Bali in six short weeks. Visit their website now to book your ticket.