World War 3: Escape from North Korea
A first hand look inside a state where millions suffer, daily. This story shows the real cost of the North Korean state and why it is so important that Trump and China take on this evil regime and end the cycle of misery in North Korea forever.
Escape From North Korea
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee thought her country was “the best on the planet.” It wasn’t until the famine of the 90s that she began to wonder. She escaped the country at 14, to begin a life in hiding, as a refugee in China. Hers is a harrowing, personal tale of survival and hope — and a powerful reminder of those who face constant danger, even when the border is far behind.
When I was little, I thought my country was the best on the planet. And I grew up singing a song called “Nothing To Envy.” And I was very proud. In school, we spent a lot of time studying the history of Kim Il-Sung, but we never learned much about the outside world, except that America, South Korea, Japan are the enemies. Although I often wondered about the outside world, I thought I would spend my entire life in North Korea, until everything suddenly changed.
When I was seven years old, I saw my first public execution. But I thought my life in North Korea was normal. My family was not poor, and myself, I had never experienced hunger.
But one day, in 1995, my mom brought home a letter from a coworker’s sister. It read, “When you read this, our five family members will not exist in this world, because we haven’t eaten for the past three weeks. We are lying on the floor together, and our bodies are so weak, we are waiting to die.”
I was so shocked. This was the first time I heard that people in my country were suffering. Soon after, when I was walking past a train station, I saw something terrible that to this day I can’t erase from my memory. A lifeless woman was lying on the ground, while an emaciated child in her arms just stared helplessly at his mother’s face. But nobody helped them, because they were so focused on taking care of themselves and their families.
A huge famine hit North Korea in the mid-1990s. Ultimately, more than a million North Koreans died during the famine, and many only survived by eating grass, bugs and tree bark. Power outages also became more and more frequent, so everything around me was completely dark at night, except for the sea of lights in China, just across the river from my home. I always wondered why they had lights, but we didn’t. This is a satellite picture showing North Korea at night, compared to neighbors.
This is the Amnok River, which serves as a part of the border between North Korea and China. As you can see, the river can be very narrow at certain points, allowing North Koreans to secretly cross. But many die. Sometimes, I saw dead bodies floating down the river. I can’t reveal many details about how I left North Korea, but I only can say that during the ugly years of the famine, I was sent to China to live with distant relatives. But I only thought that I would be separated from my family for a short time. I could have never imagined that it would take 14 years to live together.
In China, it was hard living as a young girl without my family. I had no idea what life was going to be like as a North Korean refugee. But I soon learned it’s not only extremely difficult, it’s also very dangerous, since North Korean refugees are considered in China as illegal migrants. So I was living in constant fear that my identity could 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 was so scared. I thought my heart was going to explode. If anything seemed unnatural, I could be imprisoned and repatriated. I thought my life was over. But I managed to control all the emotions inside me, and answer the questions. After they finished questioning me, one official said to another, “This was a false report. She’s not North Korean.” And they let me go. It was a miracle.
Some North Koreans in China seek asylum in foreign embassies. But many can be caught by the Chinese police, and repatriated. These girls were so lucky. Even though they were caught, they were eventually released, after heavy international pressure. These North Koreans were not so lucky. Every year, countless North Koreans are caught in China and repatriated to North Korea, where they can be tortured, imprisoned, or publicly executed.
Even though I was really fortunate to get out, many other North Koreans have not been so lucky. It’s tragic that North Koreans have to hide their identities and struggle so hard just to survive. Even after learning a new language and getting a job, their whole world can be turned upside down in an instant. That’s why, after 10 years of hiding my identity, I decided to risk going to South Korea. And I started a new life yet again.
Settling down in South Korea was a lot more challenging than I had expected. English was so important in South Korea, so I had to start learning my third language. Also, I realized there was a wide gap between North and South. We are all Korean, but inside, we have become very different, due to 67 years of division. I even went through an identity crisis. Am I South Korean or North Korean? Where am I from? Who am I? Suddenly, there was no country I could proudly call my own.
Even though adjusting to life in South Korea was not easy, I made a plan — I 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 to my family, and, as a punishment, my family was going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside. They had to get out quickly. So I started planning how to help them escape.
North Koreans have to travel incredible distances on the path to freedom. It’s almost impossible to cross the border between North Korea and South Korea. So, ironically, 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. One time, our bus was stopped and boarded by a Chinese police officer. He took everyone’s I.D. cards, and he started asking them questions. Since my family couldn’t understand Chinese, I thought my family was going to be arrested. As the Chinese officer approached my family, I impulsively stood up, and I told him that these are deaf and dumb people that I was chaperoning. He looked at me suspiciously, but luckily, he believed me.