Hyeonseo Lee is a North Korean who fled her country and now lives in Seoul, South Korea. Her life story “The Girl With Seven Names” was published in more than 20 countries in July 2015.
Over fifteen million people have already watched her TED Talk. In it, she talks about her life in North Korea, her escape to China and her struggle to bring her family to freedom. Hyeonseo Lee has testified before a special panel of the UN Security Council about the human rights situation in North Korea and has also discussed the issue with prominent figures such as US UN Ambassador Samantha Powers.
Hyeonseo Lee completed her undergraduate studies in English and Chinese at Hankuk Foreign Language University in Seoul. She was also a Young Leader at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
Hyeonseo Lee regularly reports on the human rights situation in North Korea and the associated refugee issue, including at the Global Speaker Series at Stanford University, Princeton University, New York University Law School and at many events throughout Europe. She has also discussed these issues in person with former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik.
Hyeonseo Lee has written articles for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real-Time, the London School of Economics’ Big Ideas blog and completed a journalism internship at the South Korean Ministry of Unification. Lee has been interviewed by BBC, CNN, CBS News and many other TV stations, newspapers and radios around the world. Together with other North Koreans living in South Korea, she is currently writing a book. She is also planning to start an organization to enable able North Korean refugees to interact with the international community.
Hyeonseo Lee: “Have had nothing to eat for two weeks”
During the famine in North Korea between 1993 and 1998, a total of around three million people died. Even today, many of the 24 million North Koreans are still undernourished and malnourished. Hyeonseo’s memories are clear despite her age at the time. In particular, she can still vividly remember a letter her mother received. “If you read this, we will no longer exist in this world. We haven’t eaten for two weeks. We are lying on the floor. Our bodies are so weak that we are ready to die,” the sister of a colleague wrote to her.
In 1997: Escape to China, then to South Korea
After her escape, Hyeonseo stayed with distant relatives in China for eleven years. For fear of consequences, Hyeonseo Lee does not share many details about her escape in 1997. She constantly lived in fear of being discovered as an illegal immigrant. The worst thing would have been deportation back to North Korea. Although she was caught and questioned by the police once, she was let go. “I thought my heart was going to explode,” she recalls.
Hyeonseo Lee: “I had an identity crisis”
In 2008, Hyeonseo Lee made a new start in South Korea. She reports a culture shock similar to that experienced by many other refugees. When refugees enter the country, the South Korean secret service is very suspicious. “I had an identity crisis,” says Lee. Her own family was threatened by the regime
Despite all the fear, Hyeonseo maintained contact with North Korea. When her family was persecuted by the North Korean regime, she helped her family to escape. “My family managed to escape to China, I flew there, managed to meet them and guide them through the country,” she says. They managed to escape to Laos and then to South Korea.
Wants to stand up for other refugees
Hyeonseo Lee, who is now studying foreign studies at Hankuk University, repeatedly draws attention to the fact that many North Koreans who have fled to China are still being extradited. Back in North Korea, Kim Jong Un’s iron punishment awaits. Her dream would be to one day work for the UN or a non-governmental organization and campaign for the rights of North Koreans and political refugees. She does not believe that the harsh living conditions of North Koreans will change under Kim Jong Un.