Hyeonseo Lee

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Defecting from North Korea is not only a tremendously difficult and perilous enterprise – it remains a lifetime challenge, even after one has successfully defected and resettled to South Korea. Many refugees struggle to adapt to their new life and must bear a sense of longing, guilt, and sometimes even an urge to go back. Most had to leave friends and family members behind, and while North Korea is certainly ruled by a brutal, ruthless regime, it remains home to those who were born there.

Our guest for this episode is Hyeonseo Lee, who defected from North Korea at the age of 17 and eventually reached Seoul after ten years in China, where she lived in fear of arrest and deportation. She wrote about her experience in the international bestseller The Girl with Seven Names and delivered an acclaimed TED Talk in 2013 that was watched over five million times on Youtube and TED.com. She is now an outspoken activist for North Korean refugees and has been featured in major media outlets worldwide.

Hyeonseo gracefully accepted our interview request and talked to us about life in North Korea, her “accidental” decision to defect and how it changed her life, the struggle to adapt to South Korean society and economy, the sense of guilt and various discriminations North Koreans defector all too often face, and the irony of her meeting with her future husband, Brian – an “American bastard”.

Many people are curious: « Why are North Koreans so ignorant? Don’t they have any questions about the regime? Why do they live as modern slaves today? » They just couldn’t understand our mentality. I’m telling them, whoever grew up in this environment — no matter how smart or genius, you’d become ignorant like us. Because from the moment when you were born, what you see is only this environment. So you believe that’s the real life. We had no comparison, no country I could compare with my own — because we never tasted what’s freedom, or what’s democracy or what’s capitalism. We never tasted. That’s why we just thought the socialist system was the best in the world.

The interview was recorded on January 15th in Seoul.