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Why I fled North Korea

By Hyeonseo Lee, Special to CNN
updated 5:42 PM EDT, Sun April 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hyeonseo Lee: When I was young, I thought my country North Korea was the best
  • Lee: As I saw suffering, hunger and death around me, I made my way to China
  • She says she helped her family escape North Korea with the help of a stranger
  • Lee: North Korean people need the support of the international community

Editor's note: Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea and left for China in 1997. She now lives in South Korea and is an activist for North Korea refugees. Lee spoke at the TED2013 conference in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- When I was young, I thought my country was the best on the planet. I grew up singing a song called "Nothing to Envy." I felt very proud. I thought my life in North Korea was normal, even though when I was 7 years old, I saw my first public execution.

My family was not poor, and I had never experienced hunger. But after my mother read me a letter from a coworker's sister who said that her family was dying of hunger, I realized that something was very wrong in my country. A huge famine hit North Korea in the mid to late 1990s, and I began to see suffering, hunger and death around me.

Watch Hyeonseo Lee's TED Talk

I can't reveal the details of how I left North Korea, but I can say that during the dark years of the famine when I was a young girl, I went alone to China to live with distant relatives. I thought I would be separated from my family for a short time. I could never have imagined that it would take 14 years for my family to live together again.

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Since North Korean refugees are considered illegal migrants in China, I lived in constant fear that my identity would be revealed and I would be repatriated to a horrible fate back in North Korea.

One day, my worst nightmare came true when I was caught by the Chinese police and brought to the police station for interrogation. Someone had accused me of being North Korean, so they tested my Chinese language abilities and asked me tons of questions. I thought my life was over, but I managed to control all the emotions inside of me and answered their questions. They let me go. It was a miracle!

Hyeonseo Lee
Hyeonseo Lee

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After 10 years of hiding my identity and living in fear in China, I decided to risk going to South Korea. Even though adjusting to life in South Korea was not easy, I made a plan and started studying for the university entrance exam. Just as I was starting to get used to my new life, I received a shocking phone call -- the North Korean authorities intercepted some money that I sent my family through a broker, and as punishment, my family was going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside.

They had to get out of North Korea quickly. So I started planning how to help them escape.

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I took a flight back to China and headed toward the North Korean border. Since my family couldn't speak Chinese, I had to guide them, somehow, through more than 2,000 miles in China and then into Southeast Asia. The journey by bus took one week, and we were almost caught several times.

North Korea's propaganda machine grips defector 11 years on

One time, our bus was stopped and boarded by a Chinese police officer. He took everyone's ID cards and started asking questions. Since my family couldn't understand Chinese, I thought we were going to be arrested. As the police officer approached my family, I quickly stood up and told him that these were deaf and dumb people that I was chaperoning. He looked at me suspiciously, but luckily, he believed me.

We made it all the way to the border of Laos, but I had to spend almost all of my money to bribe the border guards. Even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed for illegal border crossing.

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After I paid the bribe and fine, my family was released after one month. Soon after, they were arrested and jailed again in the capital of Laos. This was one of the lowest points in my life -- my mind and body felt completely drained, and I felt like a failure. I did everything to help my family get to freedom -- and we came so close. And now my family was thrown in jail just a short distance from the South Korean embassy.

I went back and forth between the police station and immigration office, desperately trying to get my family out ... but I didn't have enough money to pay the bribes. I lost all hope.

At that moment, I heard a man's voice asking me: "What's wrong?" I was so surprised that a total stranger cared enough to ask. He would only give me his first name. With my broken English and a dictionary, I explained the situation, and without hesitating, the man went to the ATM and paid the rest of the money for my family and two other North Koreans to get out of jail.

I thanked him with all my heart, and then I asked him, "Why are you helping me?" ... "I'm not helping you," he said. "I'm helping the North Korean people."

I realized that this was a symbolic moment in my life. The kind stranger symbolized new hope for me and other North Koreans when we needed it the most. He showed me that the kindness of strangers and the support of the international community are truly the rays of hope that the North Korean people need.

Eventually, after our long journey, my family and I were reunited in South Korea.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hyeonseo Lee.

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