PUSHING THE BORDERLINE I was born in Hyesan but moved around a lot inside North Korea growing up, because of my father's job (in the military). Hyesan people have money, the most after those in Pyongyang, because it's near the border with China. Illegal smuggling businesses and Chinese trading companies operate there, so people can access outside products. (From the mid- 1990s) we had the famine in North Korea. In Hyesan people thought it had started in 97 or 98. In North Korea we can't share information easily. The famine in Hyesan started later, because people there had money. Hyesan, we were told, is the birth town of (late supreme leader) Kim Jong-il, but that is fake. The government is always trying harder to brainwash us, because we share information with China. Hyesan had a different mentality.
BEYOND BELIEF Kim Jong-il was our only allowed religion. But inside North Korea many people use fortune tellers - they need something to rely on. Even (current supreme leader) Kim Jong-un, whenever he goes visiting the countryside, takes with him a famous fortune teller. I didn't see it, but it's what I heard. When I was growing up, my mum was doing illegal smuggling with China. Sometimes she would see a fortune teller for advice. One time I went with her: "In your future, you'll be living in foreign country and eating the foreign country rice," she said. Foreign rice? Maybe I would leave Hyesan? We never thought it meant I would be outside of North Korea.
QUESTIONS. QUESTIONS Living on the border, I realised China in the 90s wasn't something to fear. Even before (first supreme leader) Kim Il-sung died, in 1994, we had a serious power shortage. I wondered, "Why don't we have light; 10 minutes away, over the border in Changbai, I can see there is brilliant street light and neon signs?" When I was 14, during Kim Il-sung's funeral, I wondered, "How could a god die?" During the funeral many people cried severely, with all their heart. It was a hot day. We were standing there for hours, exhausted. I was sad but, in the end, I felt too tired; I didn't feel like crying. Nobody told me, "If you don't cry you're sent to a prison camp." But, as a North Korean, we had learned the fear instinctively. I faked it and my teacher thought I was crying too severely, so she put me inside an ambulance. I thought, "Wow, I am pretty smart to have avoided that problem."
THE ACCIDENTAL DEFECTOR I didn't mean to escape North Korea (aged 17). I was just curious about the outside world; I wanted to go to Changbai (for the day) and then come back. But I stayed too long and it wasn't safe to return. Living in China, I found out that the bright new world was not for me, not for defectors. My life in North Korea had been OK; suddenly in China I had to feed myself and earn money. Worst of all, North Korean defectors are hunted by the government.
CAPTURED! I was caught by the Chinese security police in Shenyang. Somebody reported me, I realised, because they knew my name. I was taken to the Xita police station, in Koreatown. On the first floor, I saw a cell of defectors; they had really dark faces. I felt, "I will join them soon. My fate is the same." They took me into a conference room, many Chinese policemen were leaning against the wall, three sat in front of me and interrogated me for a long time. In North Korea, the curriculum was focused on the dictators, posing as gods. But my father had told me to learn a foreign language. I didn't know why. But I liked writing Chinese characters, because they looked beautiful. I was caught after three years of living in China, and the police tested my Putonghua, including reading of the local papers. China has a huge population and many still don't know how to read. The police thought I was a Chinese citizen.
MISTAKEN IDENTITY When I arrived in South Korea I had a problem: the National Intelligence Service didn't believe I was a North Korean defector. I had brought perfect (Chinese identification) documents; I had sought asylum by flying from Shanghai to Incheon Airport, whereas most defectors come through Thailand; and I had lost my North Korean accent. The NIS agent said, "You have a real Samsonite suitcase?" I didn't know what Samsonite was! Only a small percentage of defectors make it to South Korea. But the suicide rate among North Koreans there is pretty high. We - the two Koreas - have been separate for so long, our culture and lifestyle have become so different. Since 2008, things are improving because South Koreans are hearing more heart-breaking stories from defectors. I'm optimistic about that. If we have more time, we can close the gap.
MOMENTS OF TRUTH My mum knew a big Hyesan official in the government. Once, when she visited his house, Kim Jong-un appeared on TV. The official turned off the TV and in Korean said, "Bulls**t. Did you know it's all faking, it's not real? He's actually the same age as me." My mum was shocked. If she told the government … But people's minds are changing. By sharing secret information, they are changing. Still, for the older generation, like my mum, seeing through the propaganda is harder.
After she and my brother defected (in 2009) and arrived in South Korea in 2010, the traffic congestion in Seoul made her stop. She had seen this type of scene in illegal South Korea dramas, but the North Korean government had told us that all the cars in Seoul had gathered in one place to make the propaganda movie. My mum said, "Wow, the TV show was true."
Hyeonseo Lee's memoir, The Girl with Seven Names, is available at amazon.com.