‘We have to start from scratch’: life after fleeing North Korea

Narjas Theodora Zatat spoke to activist Hyeonseo Lee, who is a refugee from North Korea

February 20, 2016
5 min read

hyeonseo-leeIn your book [The Girl With Seven Names, which recounts the author’s perilous journey as a refugee from North Korea to China] you mention songbun, a rigid class system based on commitment to the North Korean regime. What are your experiences with this class system?

In North Korea there are people of many backgrounds and many lifestyles but we have a social hierarchy. My social status is designated based on how much my grandparents and their grandparents contributed to the regime. When I was living in North Korea, I didn’t find this class system strange.

The lower class makes up more than 50 per cent of North Korea. Sometimes I felt lucky. Many beggars exist in North Korea and I remember thinking that they were unlucky, or that they were born into a lower class. I didn’t find this strange. As a North Korean, your family background is considered to be one of the most important aspects employers look at. You must have good songbun if you want to get the highest jobs. You can predict what kind of life you will have based on your songbun.

This is ironic, considering North Korea is supposed to be a ‘classless’ state.

North Korea has many weird slogans: ‘Woman and Man are Equal’, which is completely the opposite in real life. ‘You are the Master of Your Life’ but the government always makes the decisions for us. ‘Children are the Kings of this Country.’ We should be proud that our country considers children to be kings. But who is our king? The dictator! We are used as free labour all the time!

Juche is the main ideology in North Korea, which means ‘self reliance’. And yet North Korea constantly relies on other countries, like China and Russia, for aid.

In your book you talk about North Korean women who were forced into prostitution or were smuggled into China as brides. How much of a problem is this for North Korean women trying to get into China?

Most North Korean defectors are women—70 to 80 per cent. They don’t know how to speak Chinese. When they cross the border, they don’t know where to go. They don’t know what to do, so they rely on human traffickers. This is why the vast majority are sold as sex slaves or brides. These women do not know they are sold until the moment they see the money exchanged. They cannot even imagine the thought of human beings being bought for money.

This is a really unfortunate issue. Many North Korean females are also sold to elderly Chinese men, and their married lives are miserable. After being discovered by the Chinese police and being repatriated the treatment for them is much worse than what they suffer in China. Forced into sex slavery, forced into marriage—this is, for many, still the only way to escape.

There are many problems in South Korea associated with assimilation: what are some of the issues that North Koreans face when they arrive?

This is another sad reality. To find freedom they have to suffer so much pain, and the journey is full of danger. And yet even when they have survived the journey, they are still not free.

The pressures of South Korean society, as well the low status that North Korean refugees have works against them. Previously defectors lived in a communist state where the North Korean government told them what to do, where to go, how to act. We lived as robots.

Going to South Korea, capitalism suddenly appeared. The economic gap between the two countries is huge and defectors felt that there was so much freedom. But we didn’t know how to use it, or what to do with it.

There are many side effects to this new-found freedom: We are used to someone leading. North Koreans have to start from scratch. The icy stares from South Koreans make life difficult. As a result, defectors are under a lot of mental stress. Some of them actually prefer living in China.

What are your thoughts about the global refugee crisis?

I’ve been to many European countries and the only one not to ask me this question has been Hungary. This is a sensitive issue, but we are human beings. When I see the faces of refugees it reminds me of myself. I have suffered as a refugee for years, so I know how they feel. When I crossed the border and realised I couldn’t go back to North Korea, it was frightening.

They risked everything to get to Europe – their whole lives. In the end they come for hope. Where can they go? We live in the 21st century, where human rights are considered one of the most important tenets, so I think we have a moral obligation to help them. We might be their only hope.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry