My escape from North Korea | Hyeonseo Lee

My escape from North Korea | Hyeonseo Lee

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast 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. We made it all the way
to the border of Laos. But I had to spend almost all my money to bribe the border guards in Laos. But even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed
for illegal border crossing. After I paid the fine and bribe, my family was released in one month. But soon after, my family
was arrested and jailed again, in the capital of Laos. This was one of the lowest
points in my life. I did everything to get
my family to freedom, and we came so close, but my family was thrown in jail, just a short distance
from the South Korean embassy. I went back and forth
between the immigration office and the police station, desperately trying to get my family out. but I didn’t have enough money
to pay a bribe or fine anymore. I lost all hope. At that moment, I heard
one man’s voice ask me, “What’s wrong?” I was so surprised that a total stranger
cared enough to ask. In my broken English,
and with a dictionary, I explained the situation,
and without hesitating, the man went to the ATM, and he paid the rest
of the money for my family, and two other North Koreans
to get out of jail. I thanked him with all my heart,
and I asked him, “Why are you helping me?” “I’m not helping you,” he said. “I’m helping the North Korean people.” I realized that this
was a symbolic moment in my life. The kind stranger symbolized new hope
for me and the North Korean people, when we needed it most. And he showed me
that the kindness of strangers and the support
of the international community are truly the rays of hope
we North Korean people need. Eventually, after our long journey, my family and I were reunited
in South Korea. But getting to freedom
is only half the battle. Many North Koreans
are separated from their families, and when they arrive in a new country, they start with little or no money. So we can benefit
from the international community for education, English language training,
job training, and more. We can also act as a bridge between the people inside North Korea
and the outside world. Because many of us stay in contact
with family members still inside, and we send information and money that is helping to change
North Korea from inside. I’ve been so lucky, received
so much help and inspiration in my life, so I want to help give
aspiring North Koreans a chance to prosper
with international support. I’m confident that you will see
more and more North Koreans succeeding all over the world, including the TED stage. Thank you. (Applause)

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About the Author: Sam Caldwell


  1. The picture of North Korea at night is fake. If you look closely you can notice that they also made a little part of Russian territory dark.

  2. To anyone who is interested in this woman's story, she actually wrote an autobiography about her escape and her experiences in China, Laos, and South Korea. It's called "The Girl with Seven Names". I finished reading it recently and its a very eye-opening story.

  3. My heart weeps. North Korea is really in very bad shape. It seems that humanity is non-existing for the poor there. I hope their lives will become better soon.

  4. As a Chinese, I heard about that a Chinese woman births a child in America which is called illegal immigrant . And now I heard a foreigner immigrate into China and was caught by a cop and we just called illegal immigrant. It’s ridiculous. Why don’t we save her?

  5. From a country where the government don't care about the civilian and would rather let em starve to death and only care about weapons. There's a reason why they risk their lives to make it out. Also huge respect to all north koreans that made it out, it truly takes some balls to make it out of north korean border while they got snipers in towers waiting to kill people if they try to trespass. Basically risking their own lives to acquire freedom. This ted video reminds me of the movie, maze runner how some survivors would risk their lives to make it out of the maze in order to obtain freedom while some stayed.

  6. And then some people in the world 🌎 think they have problems 🤔 now this is a real problem… I salute her bravery, courage and determination to escape N Korea and have a better quality of life. 🙏 god bless her & other N Koreans struggling 🚣‍♂️ ✈️ 🧗‍♂️ 🏊‍♂️ 🏃‍♂️ 🏃‍♀️ Do anything please to escape North Korea 🇰🇵!

  7. One of my friends at my old school is half Korean and half Japanese. She told me her grandfather defected from North Korea and escaped to South Korea where he met her grandmother. I don’t know the explicit details but if it was true, I’m glad to have heard that he escaped.

  8. бедные люди, очень жаль что люди которые живут под этим режим диктатора, очень очень жаль, нет системы государства которая смогла устоять хотя бы век кроме как хиляфа чре века, и дальше это система пойдет как все другие как маркизм коммунизм и все остальные 😥

  9. My Goddd!!! I cannot even imagine the life in North Korea. I pray for all those people who are still suffering there.🙏🏼

  10. 👏That's so nice of u Stranger for showing us good people still exist. Thank u Lady & Shame on me for crying over a Lamborghini when some people don't even have identity. I swear I got a lesson😳

  11. I'm watching from Miami,Florida I'm so grateful for Obama now new President Trump,this story makes him look great compared to where she came from😔😔😓

  12. The Question is Why does China, America, Japanese, and Malaysian, Hate! The Koreans
    i know they had a lot of history during World War 2 but its 2019 now, what is the actual real problem here.!)

  13. i see a lot of comments critisizing china, i simple dont understand. The country has its own laws and polocies and the country helped the koreans in ww2. China had no capability of taking refugees at the time and opeing boarder would mean being ememy of north korean government.

  14. I am glad she escaped!!. I couldn't really understand what she was saying bc of her accent with broken English but i realized from a comment that there was subtitles so i turned them on and i was able to understand what she was saying.

  15. good job to you. compare your hardships with others. we have bigger problems in this world. at least you werent cramped in a tiny fishing boat with 70 people on it trying to seek refuge.

  16. It's so strange, because when I was little, I lived in Dalian, a Chinese state so close to North Korea that I could see the cities on the other side of the river. I was only five, and I find it so shocking knowing that a country that was suffering so much was right under my nose.

  17. Why are there dislikes? Do you dislike the fact that she didn't die? That she escaped? You think life is that worthless? You think it's play dough? You're a brainwashed person who believes she deserves to die? Unbelievable. How is human trash this prominent around here?

  18. Seriously, though she didn't tell every single things in her story, you can feel the tension, the fear and despair that she faced at that time even possibly worse, but she made it through it. She is able to have her speech on Ted, while me who's non north korean haven't even able to say a word there. She's just amazing!!

  19. God bless those people who hejped you and the rest of North Koreans to be free from an absolute powerful evil leaders in that small country . i asked myself why UN / UNICEP failed to help the situation in North Korea ..perhaps they only helped their own… their members ..sad !

  20. I read this book for school a while ago so it's really interesting to see this video. I respect her very much for being so brave and persistent

  21. Очередная сказка .интересно она долго учила текст?
    Видно невооруженным глазом что выучила по готовому тексту

  22. For people who say she can't put an emotion for her face, North Korea isn't suppose to show any emotions. So she grew up like that

  23. Where is United Nations? Where is human rights? Where is America's president? Everything is bogus in this world? You have to help yourselves.

  24. Her pronunciations aren’t the best, but they aren’t the worst. The most impressive thing to me is: how fast she can speak In English, most people when they learn a language are held back by not being able to think in that language, which she has mastered.

  25. How can we help ? Is there anything we can do ? I Wanna help the north korean refugees, especially the kids & Woman!!
    What can we do to help ??

  26. if i born in north korea my goal is to kill many people and kill a lot of people who do the bad thing and me, stay alive as long as i can, besides i'm our life is useless unless they do something about it, just showing to the people how bad on what they're doing i'll show them the consequences.
    (killing a lot of them and when they caught me i'll suicide no matter what cuz i have the feeling they gonna torture me) etc.

  27. How you feel in the similar way one coorperate company is playing game with my life since one year. But I wont cry what is the answer know incase anybody attack . It is good to keep a weapon aside because i know that company commiting mistakes with my name as an they balme me during that point of time shoot on the spot this is the end product

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