Hyeonseo Lee lived illegally in China for 10 years, felt “just like trash”
In early February, Apple, Facebook, Google, Levi Strauss and 123 other companies signed a legal brief opposing a US ban on travelers from seven muslim-majority countries. They complained that the ban would increase costs and make hiring and competing internationally more difficult, arguing that “immigrants make many of the Nation’s greatest discoveries, and create some of the country’s most innovative and iconic companies.”
That ban was dismissed, but a new executive order, still being fought out in the courts, would ban travel from six of the seven countries and halt the resettlement of refugees, regardless of where they’re from, for 120 days.
Simultaneously, nearly 800,000 people who arrived illegally in the US as children are now questioning the United States government’s commitment to let them work legally, free of the threat of deportation, under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
In a letter published on their website elucidating the company’s values, Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Shultz declared his support for DACA recipients and pledged to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide in the next five years.
Beyond the implications for innovation and the economy, shutting the door on refugees and threatening immigrants with deportation incurs real costs in human suffering. That’s something North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee experienced first hand, not in the United States, but in China.
“A very vulnerable people”
In 1997, at the age of 17, Lee left her home and her family and her country behind and walked across the frozen Yalu River into China. She spent the next ten years here hiding her nationality, using assumed names and fake documentation to avoid being detected and repatriated to North Korea, where she would risk torture or execution. Betrayed by a Chinese friend she’d confided in, Lee used Mandarin she’d picked up watching Chinese broadcasts in secret late at night to persuade police she really was Chinese.
Even when she finally escaped to South Korea, officials didn’t believe she was North Korean.
“They thought I was Chinese because I brought two perfect documents,” Lee told me. “I bought somebody’s record — a girl who was mentally handicapped, so she couldn’t have normal activities. So I lived her life.”
In South Korea, Lee was at last given her own passport with a number that makes it impossible to determine whether she grew up north or south of the DMZ. Her first impulse was to return to China.
“I wanted to go to China with my official document for the first time to show that I am somebody right now, not nobody,” she said. “Finally, I feel I’m a human.”
China is taking limited steps to encourage immigration to help with its ageing population, but these are largely limited to highly skilled workers. For Lee, being undocumented in China carried a severe psychic cost.
“Living in China, if we die, someone murders us, whatever, nobody’s going to find out. If I die tomorrow, I would be like just trash. Many defectors in China were threatened by Chinese people, or their horrible Chinese husbands, who bought them, saying you’re my merchandise. Even if I treat you badly, or threaten you or kill you, you have no rights. That’s basically what defectors experienced. That’s why we are very aware of how important it is to have the official document that proves who you are.”
Hyeonseo Lee on finally receiving her own passport.
In South Korea, Lee was safe from deportation, but at first she continued to conceal her identity, worried about the prejudice against North Korean defectors that continues today.
“North Koreans, we are a very vulnerable people, which means we became a burden from South Korean people’s perspectives,” she said. “When I arrived in South Korea I had no courage to tell them I’m from North Korea because I don’t want them to think I’m an alien. That’s a huge stress, That’s why most defectors are hiding their identity even in South Korea. That’s our mother land. It’s our nation. It’s not like we are hiding our identity in China. if we do it in China it’s understandable — that’s not my country. We had to do that to survive — but in my motherland we have to do the same.”
These days — having given a TED talk about her experiences that’s been watched over 7 million times, and published her memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, which brought her to the Jaipur Literature Festival where we met — Hyeonseo Lee has given up trying to hide.
“I feel like I’m an ambassador on this issue. Even people who don’t know who I am, I tell them I’m from North Korea, wherever I go. Not only here, in any country, in a taxi, on the street. So when they see North Koreans, they say, oh my god, I saw a North Korean defector, actually. Pretty much everyone, even in South Korea, maybe they saw one on TV but they never met a North Korean defector in person. That’s why it’s important for me to tell them.”
North Korean defectors appear on South Korean TV these days — they have their own talk and reality TV shows — and a welcome Lee describes as “icy” has begun to thaw.
“People who watch TV, before thinking we are a burden, they feel sympathy. Because they realise that to find freedom in South Korea, we gave up everything. We didn’t just come by airplane as tourists. We took the risk to come to South Korea. That’s why some people are crying with us, or trying to open their minds.”
North Korean tourism is “perfect for the regime”
Tourists do, however, come by airplane (and by train) to North Korea. A country that is infamously closed to the outside world — enduring economic sanctions from even its sole ally, China, due to its nuclear program, and shooting its own citizens who try to leave — accepts 5,000 Western tourists and 100,000 Chinese tourists each year. Some will participate in the Pyongyang Marathon on April 9, a staggering display of calorific wealth in a country where food security is dangerously low.
On their website, travel agents Koryo Tours say their visits enable “human-level contact”, the very same thing Lee advocates as an unofficial “ambassador” for North Koreans. While Koryo says their trips benefit both sides, Lee is sceptical of any interactions that take place inside the kingdom of Kim.
“We see foreigners as enemies. We are brainwashed to believe foreigners come to our country to try to find problems, to try to slander our country when they go back to their countries. That’s why we, even though we are smiling at you, inside we know you are our enemy.”
Furthermore, she said, “We only have one TV channel. Every day what we hear from the TV is dear leader’s name 100 times. And then the other comment we receive from TV is foreign tourists visiting Pyongyang are paying their best respects to our dear leader, giving flowers to statues and bowing in front of them. I didn’t know they were forced to do that. I found that out many years later. I thought they did that truly from their hearts. That’s why I was like, look, other countries’ people are offering their best to our dear leader. He must really be a god. He must be really like the TV presenter says, the most respected human being in the world. That’s why all the foreigners fly all the way to my country, showing their respect. That’s why I believed my dear leader is the best. And I felt proud of being born in that country. That’s perfect for the regime, for propaganda and the economic situation.”
While there is an ongoing debate in the West about the ethics of visiting North Korea, in China it can be less complicated, both morally and logistically. A day trip leaving Dandong, Liaoning Province, can be made without a passport, and costs as little as 790RMB (115 USD).
For older Chinese, visiting North Korea may be less tourism than time travel. According to Zhihu forum user 蔡韵Iris, “it feels like traveling back in time, all the way to the depths of my memory, strange but wonderful. For young people it’s more of a curiosity, but I especially recommend you take your parents or the older generation. For them, rediscovering surroundings and objects from their youth would be doubly meaningful.”
Luka Yang, who travelled to North Korea in the winter of 2014 with a Chinese tour group, said her mum felt that way too initially, “but after two days she also started to say something doesn’t quite feel right.”
“If you look close enough you will see behind the perfect curtain. Buildings painted in bright colours have windows with no glass. From the hotel, you see the whole city in darkness at night, only the statue of the leader lit up.”
“I think the topic of if people should travel to North Korea or not is very complicated,” Yang said.
- Article by Sam Gaskin