Hyeonseo Lee Interview
By: PP Wong
“We cannot let oppressive governments intimidate or silence us because there are many people who need our help and rely on people with the courage to speak out.”
Hyeonseo Lee is a North Korean defector who often speaks out against injustice and persecution. Her TED Talk has been watched by over 1.8 million viewers. She is also the author of The Girl With Seven Names that tells the riveting story of her escape from North Korea. In her interview with BW she shares about her love for her family and why people must not close their eyes to oppression.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Sadly I don't remember reading books when I was growing up. We were forced to memorize and regurgitate propaganda, so we didn't have the opportunities that most children have to read and learn interesting things.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
I would transform into a bird so I could fly to North Korea freely and visit my hometown. Just seeing my relatives and friends again would be a dream.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Interesting. I've never had a question like this before. I would probably bring a container to catch water and a Swiss Army knife so that I could make various survival tools.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Emotional, motivated, hopeful.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
I really admire Malala because she had the courage to fight for change and tell the world her story. She also donated her prize money to make the world a better place.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Banana smoothies are delicious. Adding a banana to almost any smoothie makes it taste better.
What gave you the strength to write The Girl With Seven Names?
In the past, I never considered writing my story, but after I learned English and found that many people were interested in North Korean defectors and curious to learn more about my country, I decided to share my story. It's important that defectors have a chance to share their stories and connect with the international community so that we can work together to end this ongoing tragedy.
Did you ever feel fearful about the repercussions of having this book published? If so, how did you overcome this fear?
I was fearful before I got on the Ted stage and gave the first big speech in English from a North Korean defector.
I worried that this would attract attention, and it did. The South Korean authorities have warned me on several occasions to be careful, and even offered me bodyguards for protection. I knew that once I decided to speak out, there was no turning back.
But despite my fears, I will never be silent because I know what I'm doing is important.
We cannot let oppressive governments intimidate or silence us because there are many people who need our help and rely on people with the courage to speak out.
You mentioned being separated from your family for many years. How did this affect your relationships with them and how did it affect you as a person?
When I realized that I wouldn't be able to see my family again, I was devastated. I cried every night looking up at the moon, wondering if my mom was looking at the same time.
I hope everyone learns to appreciate their time with their family members and friends. Don't take this time for granted. It was hard to see my family members when we were finally reunited because they looked so different. We were also in a very desperate situation, trying to escape safely to South Korea, so we didn't even have that much time to catch up in the beginning. It’s been a long process of getting to know each other again, but I'm so happy that we have this opportunity and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.
There is a lot of discussion about censorship in North Korea – censorship of people’s words, people’s thoughts, people’s opinions. Even though you have left North Korea now, do you feel that there are still other topics which you personally still feel the need to censor?
I'm enjoying the freedom of speech outside North Korea and I'm using it to inform the world about the truth about my country. Censorship is a big problem in many countries, especially North Korea. I don't censor myself about any topic, although I have to protect my relatives identities back in North Korea, so I don't talk about them publicly.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “When I was young, I thought my country was the best on the planet." Some people believe than human beings are born with an innate conscience – something in your spirit that tells you if something is right or wrong. What changed your opinion of your home country?
Throughout most of my time in North Korea, I didn't think about the outside world or consider that my leaders were lying to me. I believed everything I was taught. But I was one of the lucky ones because I grew up on the border of China, so I could compare my country to the outside world.
I noticed that China was a lot more developed and had flashing lights and neon signs, which was a stark comparison to my dark and undeveloped homeland. I began to further question the North Korean regime’s propaganda that we are the best in the world, because we had a famine and people were starving to death. I was also able to secretly watch Chinese TV channels in my secret little world hidden by the blankets on my windows late at night so the authorities couldn't see me watching TV. I was fascinated by the bright, interesting programs and even the advertisements. Finally, I became so interested and curious about the outside world that I decided to explore for myself, and it changed my life forever.
Sometimes you read about people who have been kept in captivity for many years. After they are set free, they sometimes strangely miss aspects of their life in captivity. Is there anything that you miss about your life in North Korea?
I hate the North Korean regime and the oppressive system, but I love my country and the people. I miss my friends and relatives so much that I literally dream about returning. I really hope that one day North Korea can change and then I can return to my hometown to see all the loved ones I had to leave behind. I also want people in the international community to see that North Koreans are good people who are just trying to survive in a horrible system.
What was the process in getting your book published?
I had a very unusual process of getting my book published. After I gave my TED talk, millions of people began to watch and there was a lot of interest in North Korean defectors stories. So some publishers actually contacted me directly and asked if I would like to publish my story. I was introduced to my agent and co-writer, which seems to be uncommon as well. I feel very lucky that I was able to publish my memoir, and I hope more defectors can do so as well.
Speaking of your TED Talk, it has been watched on YouTube by over 1.8 million viewers, how did you prepare for such a talk?
I was so nervous when I gave my first speech in English, and to be honest, it didn't go very well. Some people may have given up after that experience, but I knew that I had to keep trying.
Over time, my English and my confidence improved a lot, and someone suggested that I try out for the Ted worldwide talent search. Fortunately, I was selected by voters around the world as well as the Ted staff to give a speech, and it has now been viewed more than 5 million times between the main website and YouTube. I take a lot of time and effort to prepare a speech, practising constantly, and I'm sure that if anyone is dedicated, they can give great speeches.
You have gone through immense challenges in your life. What drives you forward and gives you the strength to overcome adversity?
When I think about how my friends and family are suffering in North Korea, I'm motivated to continue what I'm doing no matter what. Learning English as my third language has been extremely challenging, and sometimes I'm very frustrated when I'm trying to prepare my speeches, but I never back down from a challenge. It has also been hard to reopen some of the old psychological and emotional scars that I endured, but I know that it's necessary to tell people the full details of my life so they understand how hard it is to be a North Korean defector.
What projects do you have on the horizon?
I just finished my final standardized English test required to graduate from my university, which was completely exhausting after I went on my book tour in many different countries. I need a little time to rest and decompress, and then I'm going to get more directly involved helping North Korean orphans living outside North Korea, because they are extremely vulnerable and forgotten by many people in society. I'm also preparing for graduate school, which requires a lot more tests. It's exhausting, but I'm dedicated to achieving my goals.BW