Both the mother and brother of North Korean activist Hyeonseo Lee –who she helped to escape from the country in 2009– have had trouble adjusting to modern life in neighboring South Korea.
“It’s a completely different system in South Korea … [North Koreans] have never tasted freedom — and they can’t enjoy freedom. The system is not familiar so my mom prefers the ordinary life they used to have. When I see that, I understand her but sometimes I feel so sad.”
Lee’s mother still has seven brothers and sisters living in North Korea who she can’t see. Her only form of contact is through occasional phone calls made illegally using mobile phones that can connect to Chinese networks close to the border. Recently one of her mother’s brothers died and she was devastated she couldn’t be there.
“My mom was crying, she realized everyone will die like that. It’s hard to see unification (happening) in her lifetime. Family is the most important thing, you can’t buy that with money.”
Life in South Korea is also complicated by the fact that many view defectors as an economic burden, something that Lee hopes to change. ”We left everything behind and gave up everything, we risked our own lives … there’s a lot of prejudice … but we are showing that we can do very well,” she said.
Lee is one of those successful North Koreans, studying and working as an activist for others like her. Looking back at her experiences, she thinks they made her stronger. “At that moment I thought it was a tragedy, …but I look back now, I think it kind of helped me in my mentality (to have) that braveness … I became a strong woman.”