Why I escaped from my brainwashed country | Hyeonseo Lee | TEDxKyoto


Translator: Taylor Busacca
Reviewer: Riaki Poništ Imagine waking up one day and realizing that you were born
on a completely different planet, and everything you learnt was a lie, and your country’s history
was so fabricated, and everyone around you
was so brainwashed, and heroes you worship
were actually monstrous villains. This is like a plot
to a science fiction novel, but it’s the insane reality
for North Koreans like me. From the moment I was born, I was indoctorated to worship
our first dictator Kim Il-Sung. And I always bowed to his pictures
which hang in every North Korean’s home. To us, he was Santa Clause and God, who was delivering presents on holidays
and performing numerous miracles. When he was fighting our enemy, he made bombs from pine cones and turned sand into rice and crossed a river on tree leaves, and he even crossed the rainbow. So that’s why when I was young, I used to believe that I could also
cross the rainbow. With only one source of propaganda and no access to outside information, I was totally ignorant. This is a really good thing,
to live in North Korea, because the regime imposes the deadly mix of ignorance and fears so even if you wanted to wake up
from your Orwellian nightmare, you intentionally put
yourself back to sleep. If you don’t, your entire family, or sometimes three generations of family, will be sent to a political prison camp
in the middle of the night, where starvation and torture are standard. This is what happened
to my friend’s father, who simply said to his best friend,
“The system is unfair.” That’s why my mom told me always,
even when I was young, to be careful. “The birds hear you by day, and the mice hear you at night,” she said. We found safety in our ignorance, and we believed everything
that the regime told us. Especially, we believed the outside world
was miserable and dangerous. I respected the dear leader,
Kim Il-Sung, for protecting us from the American imperialists, who enslave South Koreans
in the horrible capitalist hell, even today. We also believed that in the capitalist countries,
like South Korea and America, so many people die outside hospitals
because they can’t pay. So we were extremely grateful to be living in our Communist utopia. Well, from the famine in the mid-1990s, I saw something different
that doesn’t make sense. People were starving to death,
and I thought to myself, “How can our wonderful
Communist system allow this to happen?” Those began to fill my mind as beggars and dead bodies
filled the street, and I had goosebumps
when I walked home from school, and I sometimes smelled
the decomposing flesh. But it wasn’t until I started watching
illegal Chinese TV at night, in my little secret world
under the blanket, I began to understand the truth
about North Korea in the outside world. I couldn’t imagine what I was watching on Chinese TV, because I’d never seen
the products advertised on TV and the characters
with dyed hair and ripped chins, and living in a bright
and modern new world. So, I realized North Korea
was not a paradise. My family had really good relationships
with the border guys, so one of them helped me
to cross the border into China. Full of curiosity and attraction
about the new world. I decided to take on another
bolder steps to cross the border to find out the truth. And it changed my life forever. After arriving in China, I never thought I could return
to my homelands due to the rumors of my escape, so I would constantly change my name, hunted by the Chinese
authorities all the time. That’s why I became
the Girl with Seven Names. The brilliant new world in China wasn’t for North Korean defectors. It wasn’t for me. So I was hiding in fear and isolation, but I did my best to learn
more about my country, and I was stunned to find that all the history
was horrible propaganda and especially South Korea’s economy
was much ahead of North Korea, which we were brainwashed to believe South Korea was a terribly poor country. And most importantly, I realized that a life of fear,
hunger, and oppression, is a crime against
the North Korean people. I really wanted to experience the half
of the divided Korean Peninsula, so in the end, I made
another big decision again by taking a flight
from China to South Korea. Even though I was flying South,
back to the land of Korean people, I felt like I was flying farther
and farther from my family. And when I landed, I thought about the DMZ
dividing the Korean Peninsula, and I was asking myself, “Am I going to be separated
from my family forever?” At the airport I was so hopeful
when I asked for asylum, but I received a rude
introduction to South Korea. The two officials checked
my phoney Chinese passport and Visa, and they asked me with suspicious eyes, “These are real. Are you really a North Korean defector?” They thought I was Chinese citizen trying to receive
a South Korean citizenship. So, they told me to go back
to China on the next flight, or else I would receive
strict punishment under the law, and then be deported. My life flashed before my eyes. I couldn’t believe, even in South Korea, I was in danger of being deported
to China and then back to North Korea, where I would be tortured and publicly executed
for visiting the South. I almost had a breakdown. At the long interrogation, I had to still convince
the South Korean authorities that I wasn’t a North Korean spy
or a Chinese citizen. It’s ironic that while I was hiding
in China for many years, I had to convince the Chinese authorities
that I wasn’t a North Korean defector. Now I had to do my best to convince
the South Korean authorities that I actually was
a North Korean defector. And then in 2009, I returned to the border
between North Korea and China, and arranged a route
for my my family to escape. My family all walked
across freezing water under the seven
border guarders’ protection, because they were friends, but we were almost caught
in China several times. Within the first five minutes of departure a Chinese military soldier
got on the bus and started checking IDs. My family couldn’t speak Chinese,
so we would be easily exposed. As the soldier approached, my brother’s face turned so dark,
like he was going to die. So I quickly jumped in the aisle
in front of the soldier, and I started taking pictures
of his face to distract him. He screamed at me, I apologized, and in the end,
he ran off the bus in anger. Amazingly we survived
the 2,000 km across China, but in the end my family
went through hell in Laos, after being imprisoned twice. I was so devastated to see
my mother’s frail body and bony face when I came to get her out the prison. After 14 years of long separation, we could finally be reunited
in South Korea in 2010. But after even we found real freedom, I realized that we can never be free
from the North Korean regime, because the leadership
became increasingly angry, like defectors like me, we’re were sharing
our stories with the world, and then telling the truth
about the human rights overseas which made the United Nations’
landmark COI report last year. So the regime fought back by making
a propaganda videos against defectors. They featured North Korean relatives,
back in North Korea, Revealing the huge rift and mental anguish for those of us who speak out. At the same time, the regime
also was struggling to fight two of the biggest
threats to its existence: information flowing in
and people flowing out. The external information, especially South Korean dramas and movies that have made South Korea
so popular among the North Korean people and shattered the propaganda
about the regime’s superiority. So in response, the regime enhanced the border’s
security situation to prevent defections, and the propagandists brought
a surprising solution, the Defector Press Conference, which featured North Koreans who actually first escaped to South Korea but then returned to North Korea later. In the Defector Press Conference, the returning defectors told similar
stories about their defection, like South Korean intelligence agent
tricked them into defecting, so they suffered miserable
lives in capitalist societies, so they dreamed to return to North Korea, and ultimately the supreme leader,
Kim Jung-un, welcomed them back home despite their betrayal. But there’s evidence that these defectors
were actually forced by the regime to return and give the press conference. But it’s tragic that actually
North Korean defectors are suffering in South Korea even though we sacrificed
everything to reach freedom. When we finally find it, we are still suffering
with many different reasons and confronted by the North Korean regime. We are on the front lines of the battle
against the North Korean tyranny, the regime’s tyranny,
by the human rights offices, and we are winning thanks to many of you
who fight by our side. And to anyone who wants
to join in our fight please share our story widely, so the whole world
will know about the truth in my country, North Korea. Thank you. (Applause)

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