Hyenseo Lee was 7 when she witnessed her first public execution. She grew up in North Korea, in a childhood where they sang the song, ‘Nothing to Envy’ and learnt nothing of the outside world except that America, South Korea and Japan were enemies. In the mid nineties a famine hit the country, killing over one million people. Many more survived only by eating bugs, tree bark and grass. Lee’s family decided to send her to China to live with relatives.
The Amrok river, which separates North Korea from China, is narrow in parts yet Lee saw many dead bodies floating on the water. She is unable to give the details of her personal escape, but tells of the constant fear she lived in for ten years as an illegal migrant in China. Once, she was caught by the Chinese police, who tested her Chinese language abilities and asked her questions. She describes it as a miracle that she passed the test.
After ten years, Lee decided to start a new life in South Korea. She was studying for the university entrance exam when she received a call saying the North Korean authorities had intercepted some money she’d sent her family and as punishment they would be removed to a desolate countryside location.
Lee flew to China and guided her family more than 2000 miles through China into Southeast Asia. They were almost intercepted by Chinese police on one bus, while in Laos they were arrested twice. Once a complete stranger helped Lee to bail them out.
North Koreans have defected since the end of the Korean war in 1953, with more leaving since the famine. Their destination countries include China, South Korea, Pakistan, Japan, Mongolia, Philippines, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam and Canada. One source in 2005 estimated that 60-70% of the defectors to China were women, most of these being victims of human trafficking. The South Korean ministry of unification is an organisation managing North Korean defectors in their territory by establishing admission processes and resettlement policies. Pakistan is one of the only countries which North Korea allows students to study in. Three boats in history have managed to escape directly to Japan. Mongolia is sympathetic to North Korean refugees. The Philippines has often been used as a transit point for refugees en route to South Korea. An estimated 10,000 North Koreans live in the Russian far east, many having escaped from the work camps there. The Thai government deports refugees to South Korea after they have served their sentences for illegal entry. Growing South Korean investment in Vietnam has prompted Hanoi to quietly permit the transit of North Korean refugees to Seoul. North Korean asylum seekers have been in rising numbers since 2006 in Canada.
These North Koreans act as a bridge between the country and the outside world. They often struggle with barriers such as English and education. The international community can assist them in their transition towards settling in their new homes. Through this assistance, Lee is confident that more will succeed throughout the world.