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North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
I'm a North Korean defector. I grew up in North Korea, while believing that I was living in “the best place on earth,” just as my government taught me to believe. When the great famine hit North Korea in the mid 1990s it killed an estimated 800,000 - 2 million people, I was forced to question my beliefs of my country, and decided to defect at the age of 17.

I'm now a human rights activist for North Koreans, and will answer any questions that the Parlio community has about my life and work. I shared my story in a recently published book titled “The Girl with Seven Names.”
This Q&A took place between 8/14/15 and 8/24/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
17 questions
Stanford Professor - Former US Amb. to Russia
Do you think more engagement with the North Korean regime by South Korea and the United States would help to create better or worse conditions for human rights activities inside the country?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
I'm highly skeptical about the prospect for South Korea or the US to engage the North Korean regime on improving human rights. North Korean propaganda consistently claims that there are no human rights violations in North Korea and that it is actually a paradise of human rights. The propagandists also claim that the US and South Korea are terrible human rights violators.

Due to priorities like the nuclear issue and other security issues, I've heard that South Korean and US negotiators don't even bring up the human rights issue with North Korean officials because they become furious or simply refuse to talk about it.

Therefore, I think an important catalyst for improving human rights inside North Korea must come from civil society. People and organizations around the world must demand change and put pressure on China to make it happen. Since the North Korean regime depends on China to survive, the Chinese government could force North Korea to open its economy and eliminate travel restrictions. These kinds of changes would be a huge improvement in human rights for the North Korean people in the short-term, and could hopefully pave the way to eventual reunification.
Heart Surgeon turned Satirist / Host of AlBernameg
Hello Miss Lee
How do people view Kim Jon-Un? Do they believe that he is infallible? Do they still believe that his father and grandfather are divine? what does it take for a breaking point for people to shake their believes about him? I am sorry to ask many questions but it is important for me especially after we have seen in the Egypt to understand how people completely give up their minds for the love of a dictator!
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
Like many North Koreans, I loved and respected Kim Il-sung as a divine ruler, but after he died, I realized he was human. The cult of personality during the Kim Jong-il era gradually weakened for various reasons, including the famine and collapse of the public distribution system, the influx of foreign media and overall economic malaise.

These conditions continue under the current leader, Kim Jong-un, giving the people little reason to have confidence in him. Moreover, he was virtually unknown among the North Korean people before he took over the country. Unlike his “war hero” grandfather, Kim Jong-un has no revolutionary history or military experience to boost his credibility, so the propagandists are struggling to establish his personality cult.

I don't think it will take very much to shake people's beliefs in the current leader. The influx of foreign media is continuing to weaken the propaganda and the cult of personality because North Koreans can see that their country is not the best in the world. So more North Koreans need access to outside information in order to force the country to change from within. When the masses become awakened, the propaganda will have to end.
What do you see as the biggest mistake the international community makes when trying to help North Korea's citizens?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
Many foreigners who visit North Korea as tourists believe they're meeting average citizens and helping to open their minds due to their interaction with outsiders. But the North Koreans they meet are part of the loyal, privileged class - many of whom have little incentive for North Korea to reform, since they are benefiting from the current system.

Also, foreign tourists are actually being used as propaganda tools by the regime because they have to bow to the leaders’ statues. When I was growing up, North Korean TV news programs would show footage of foreigners bowing to the statue of our dear leaders and laying flowers at their feet. This is actually a very effective form of propaganda, because North Koreans think, "even foreigners make pilgrimages to respect our leaders, so they must be the best leaders in the world."

The regime also trains North Korean citizens on how to interact with foreigners. When I was younger, the government sent us a long questionnaire of potential questions that foreigners could ask us, along with the scripted answers. North Koreans can also get into huge trouble for saying anything to foreigners that is deemed inappropriate, so genuine personal interaction between foreigners and North Koreans inside the country is extremely rare.
How does the state address the basic medical needs of people with mild or significant disabilities.
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
The state doesn't even take care of average people, and certainly doesn't use scarce resources for people with disabilities. Disabled people are often kept out of public view and neglected.

Part of North Korea's modern propaganda campaign to divert attention away from international human rights criticism has been to engage other countries on improving support for the disabled. The regime hopes people will think its efforts are genuine - and that a government that cares about disabled people certainly would not violate its average citizens’ human rights. But it's merely a ploy. Tragically, the government does not care about disabled people, and that's a shame because they need a lot of government support.
Hello Ms. Lee,

Can you tell us about how the government controls your access to information? Does the whole population really believe so many things that are untrue? If so, why is it so effective? Are there any cracks in the "mass delusion" or were you a very rare outlier? Thank you for sharing with us.
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
North Korea has a highly developed security apparatus with a complex network of spies, so information was very tightly controlled until recent years, when outside information started flooding in and breaking the regime's grip on power. Before then, North Koreans could only watch the sole government propaganda channel or read state-run news, so we were extremely ignorant and easily manipulated.

The fear of punishment in a prison camp has also deterred some North Koreans from seeking outside information, but many are consuming and sharing foreign media smuggled into the country. Thus, more and more people are doubting the propaganda that North Korea is an earthly paradise.

The regime's mass delusion is like a house of cards: after enough people wake up, it will come crashing down. And as North Koreans' curiosity and fascination with the outside world grows, so does the pressure from within to open up and reform the country.
Hello Ms. Lee, thank you for participation in the Q&A session!

Question: What are your thoughts on how we should continue to press the Chinese government regarding the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees in China? Protests, letter writing campaigns, reaching out to Chinese students abroad, etc. - have and are being done currently. What do you think should be done more regarding this? Thank you!
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
One of the most effective methods is for people to urge their governments to pressure China to stop repatriating North Korean refugees. China is obligated under the Convention Against Torture and the Refugee Convention to protect refugees, but instead, it hunts them down and sends them back to North Korea, where they can be tortured, imprisoned or publicly executed.

North Korean human rights is unfortunately not on the agenda when powerful countries sit down with China, so we need a strong grassroots movement demanding that China change its policy. Ideally, this grassroots movement would also include Chinese citizens, who understand that their government’s policy is destroying innocent North Korean people’s lives.

The movement should include current methods (writing letters, protesting, and reaching out to Chinese people) as well as some additional initiatives. One idea is to have another celebrity concert, like Cry With Us 2012, when many famous South Koreans took up the cause of North Korean human rights. If many people take a stand and insist that the Chinese government protect North Korean refugees, it will hopefully realize that its current policy is untenable.
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
Thank you for answering our questions!

What are some ways in which people can help you with your work on the human rights violations in North Korea?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
One of the most important ways people can help is to raise awareness by sharing information about North Korean human rights. Many people have told me that they didn't fully realize the extent of the human rights disaster in North Korea until defectors started sharing their stories. Defectors are trying to make a difference by waking people up and inspiring them to get involved. We hope people spread the word and urge their governments to make North Korean human rights a priority.

There are also numerous charities and NGOs doing great work to help the North Korean people, so I strongly urge concerned members of the international community to donate money or volunteer their time. North Korean defectors need a lot of help.
Have you witnessed generational differences in opinion / suspicion of the government in North Korea?

I ask because in Egypt, I feel like a lot of people my parents' age tend to blindly believe state media, support the status quo, and oppose any change (even if they are not happy with the political regime), whereas people my age tend to be the opposite.
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
Compared to previous generations, the younger generations in North Korea today haven’t received any benefits from the government, and have been exposed to more information about the outside world. Since people had to learn how to survive without relying on the government, their minds changed to focus on money first rather than loyalty to the regime.

Even though younger generations are moving up in society, they are not yet able to bring significant changes to the North Korean system, because the people in high-ranking positions in North Korea are from the older generations. As the older generations are replaced by the younger generations and more North Koreans are awakened from their brainwashing, there’s hope for real change in North Korea. That’s why I strongly believe that people in the outside world have a responsibility to help the North Korean people by sending them information.
Hyeonseo, I watched your TED talk and I was very moved by your family's harrowing escape from North Korea through China and Laos. What can American policy makers and civil society do to assist North Korean defectors who have been able to escape, but remain in danger as they transit?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
The main goal is to persuade or pressure China into giving North Korean escapees their much deserved status as refugees protected under international agreements. Despite the complicated relationship between the US and China, I think the Chinese would be willing to work with their American counterparts on this issue if the Americans really make it a priority.

China should not bow to pressure from North Korea to hunt, capture and repatriate North Koreans who fled the country. These brave escapees are simply exercising their inherent rights to explore the world. It is inexcusable for any country, but particularly a global leader like China, to hunt them down and send them back to a miserable fate in North Korea. China has the power to force North Korea to change, since it could not survive without Chinese support, so I hope the US government and civil society uses the extensive relationships with their Chinese counterparts to force a change in their refugee policy.
Research and Policy Officer at EAHRNK
How do you see the role of the North Korean refugee community in South Korea in terms of Korea policy? Do they play any significant role and can you envisage a more unified and politically active group emerging out of the 28-30,000 strong North Korean community?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
In recent years, North Korean refugees have been making important strides in terms of participation in South Korean society. One landmark moment was in 2012 when Cho Myung-chul became the first North Korean defector to be elected to South Korea's National Assembly.

North Korean refugees have also been playing an active role in raising awareness within the international community about North Korea's human rights abuses. Their testimony has been an important component for crucial reports, such as the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea. As more refugees are raising their voices, people are starting to pay attention and demanding that their government take action.

Nevertheless, North Korean refugees need to play a more active role in influencing and even crafting South Korea's policy toward North Korea. The opportunity to participate in a democracy is a very important freedom North Korean refugees have earned, but rarely exercise. Many refugees are isolated and afraid, so one of my future goals is to start an organization to educate and empower them.

It’s difficult to envisage a large, unified group of North Korean refugees because many do not trust each other, and do not want to reveal their identities. They are worried about spies posing as defectors, as well as the safety of their families back in North Korea. But over time, as relationships and trust are established, I hope to see a more unified group of politically active refugees.
Very happy you're on Parlio, how do people in North Korea find sources to see reality for what it is, how do they unlearn what they were taught, and how do they resist?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
In recent years, information has been flooding into North Korea in a variety of ways. A lot of foreign media, like music and movies, is loaded onto USBs and DVDs and then illegally smuggled through the long, porous border with China. Some organizations also send outside materials into North Korea via helium balloons. When North Korean people get their hands on the coveted foreign content, they can share or sell it to others, so it can spread quickly.

North Koreans also have cell phones to share information with each other inside the country, and people living near the border with China can even pick up Chinese cell phone signals to call out of the country. So many defectors from the border areas can contact their family or friends back in North Korea and tell them information about the outside world.

It's hard to know what will lead North Koreans to resist, but as more and more awaken from their brainwashing and realize how the regime has actually ruined the country and trampled all over their human rights, the likelihood for resistance increases.
Human Rights Foundation and Oslo Freedom Forum
Hello Hyeonseo! My question relates to South Korea: what do you think would be the best way to get South Koreans to care more about promoting the human rights of North Koreans? Is there a certain star, celebrity, athlete, or company who could make the cause "cool" and popular?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
I think one of the best ways to get more South Koreans to care about North Korean human rights is for South Korean celebrities to get directly involved. This actually happened in a very meaningful way back in 2012 during the Save My Friend campaign, which pressed China not to capture and repatriate North Koreans who escaped the country. For the first time, numerous South Korean celebrities got together to host a concert for North Korean human rights, and it was a big success.

Yet many South Koreans do not pay much attention to North Korean defectors or human rights issues, so it would be very helpful if South Korean celebrities took on the cause of the North Korean people. I'd urge as many South Korean celebrities as possible to champion North Korean human rights, since there are millions of our Korean brothers and sisters north of the DMZ who need a lot of help.

Hopefully many of the celebrities who participated in the concert would be willing to continue their efforts and consistently raise awareness about the North Korean tragedy. In particular, I recall that Cha In-pyo, a popular South Korean actor, seemed very passionate about promoting North Korean human rights, so I hope he continues his advocacy.
Director of Strategy at Maple Leaf Foods - Canada
Hi Ms. Lee,
Similar to Bassem Youssef and John Pettus, I am generally interested to know your view on what are the cracks in North Korea's resilient dictatorship that could make it fall one day.
Particularly, my question is about the regime's soldiers. How do they justify to themselves torturing and killing their own countrymen for simply wanting to defect? How is defection portrayed in their mind? Why does a defector deserve such horrors in their point of view?
Thank you very much
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
North Koreans are taught to believe that anyone who defects is a traitor, so many of the soldiers and border guards do not consider those attempting to flee to be their countrymen. Those who seek to betray their leader and country by defecting are not even considered human - they are considered scum, and treated much worse.

Other border guards and soldiers may not believe that someone merely trying to leave the country is a traitor, but they have to treat them harshly in front of their peers and superiors or else they could be fired or severely punished themselves.

Furthermore, since the North Korean regime chooses border guards based on family history and status, these border guards are also part of the loyal class. Thus, they have an interest in maintaining the status quo in North Korea, so they help perpetuate the regime by instilling fear in any would-be defectors.
(From Seoul)

Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. Compared to a few years ago, far more North Koreans are aware of what's happening beyond their borders, including the difficulties faced by people who, like you, managed to escape. How could the Ministry of Unification better pave the way to reunification?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
I would like to see the Ministry of the Unification involve more North Korean defectors in discussions and debates about North Korea policy and inter-Korean relations. Defectors will play a crucial role in bridging the gap between the divided Koreas; since we have experienced the painful adjustment from life in North Korea to life in a modern society, we should create a plan to help North Koreans adjust to the transition upon reunification. We've also experienced prejudice, isolation and other problems in South Korea, so we should advise the government on how to overcome these kinds of problems.
Dream: stock exchange for non-profits -
Hi Ms. Lee, I just returned from Korea a couple weeks ago and I was blown away by visiting one of the observation posts and seeing the ribbons placed there by North Korean refugees. I have two questions:

1) I am writing a book and developing a project to create a stock market for non-profits, to encourage people to develop "portfolios" of non-profit organizations. If you could imagine a "mutual fund", or simply a list of non-profits that you'd suggest people consider supporting in North Korea, what would they be? NKSC, Liberty in North Korea?

2) One person I asked about re-unification felt that it's not likely to happen because China would not want a strong South Korea - what do you think?

3) Perhaps this is crazy or has already been discussed. If North Korean refugees represent the aspirations of most North Koreans, would it make sense to consider creating a government in exile, to "pre-negotiate" re-unification? Or would that drive the north korean government so crazy that they might lash out?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
1) There are so many great organizations doing a variety of crucial work to help the North Korean people. North Koreans inside the country need so much aid and support, defectors in China need protection and safe passage, and defectors in third countries need resettlement assistance, education and job training. Most North Korea-related NGOs have one or two specific areas of focus, so donating to a broad group of different NGOs is a good idea. Since I know many of the NGO leaders personally, I shouldn’t choose a specific list, but I would like to discuss the idea of a mutual fund with them.

2) I've learned that China does not want Korean reunification for several reasons. First, China wants to keep North Korea as a buffer zone between the US military in South Korea. A reunified Korea would likely be a democratic ally of the US, which would put the US military right on China's border.

Reunification may also entail the eventual collapse of the regime and a mass exodus of North Korean refugees into China, which the Chinese government considers extremely dangerous and destabilizing. There is also some risk that a united, emboldened Korea would try to reclaim the three Korean autonomous provinces in China, since they used to be Korean territory.

In light of these issues, I think your friend is right that China would prefer to deal with two smaller, weaker Koreas, as opposed to a strong, united Korea. China seems to be fairly satisfied with its relations on the divided Korean Peninsula, since it has a strong trading relationship with South Korea, and can also leverage the North Korean regime’s dependence on Chinese aid to exploit precious North Korean resources, especially minerals.

3) This is an interesting idea. However, the North Korean government would never negotiate with defectors, and it would certainly lash out. Defectors also have trust issues and concerns about privacy, so it would be difficult to get a group together that has broad support among the defector community.

Additionally, defectors in South Korea receive citizenship, so we technically have a government representing us at the negotiating table with the North Koreans. However, we should definitely take a more active role in discussions and policy making regarding reunification.
Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son had a huge impact, increasing the awareness of me and, I suspect, many others about the depth of human rights violations in North Korea, even among those of us who thought we were aware of the problem.

You have now written a book (one I look forward to reading). What is your view about the importance of memoirs and novels in influencing thinking and, more importantly, mobilizing advocacy to correct contemporary human rights abuses?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
Memoirs and novels are critical tools in the campaign to raise awareness and mobilize advocacy for North Korean human rights. Until recently, there weren't many defectors memoirs published in foreign countries, so even though some readers could gain a general understanding of North Korea through the news, the North Korean people didn't get the international attention or support that they deserve.

Memoirs bring the country and people of North Korea to life. They are usually very emotional and inspiring, so they resonate with readers and help them to connect with the North Korean people on a human level. Most importantly, readers cannot forget their stories, so they often feel compelled to share them and even to get involved.

I also hope to see more novels about North Korea because they have the added benefit of reaching people who may not read memoirs and non-fiction. Since many people like to read novels, I hope they will read one about North Korea, and then learn more about the current situation.
What is the most influential thing you've ever read?
North Korean defector; Author of "The Girl with Seven Names"
To answer your question literally, I would say the Bible is the most influential book I’ve come across (although I certainly haven’t been able to read all of it). Since I never experienced religion in North Korea or China, it has been very eye-opening to see the deep, global influence of the Bible.

I am deeply moved and inspired by the work that Christians have been doing for North Koreans - they dedicate their lives to helping North Korean refugees, sometimes at great personal risk. To North Koreans, it is unimaginable that people are willing to spend so much of their time and effort in the service of others - all in the name of religion - so defectors are fascinated by the power and influence of the Bible.

In North Korea, I also read the Count of Monte Cristo, which really captivated my young mind. In hindsight, I’ve realized that the book has many themes related to my own story, including multiple identities, betrayal, self-discovery, and redemption. I’d like to include more novels on the USBs sent into North Korea, because the North Koreans would also be influenced by great literature in addition to the TV shows and movies they watch.