A North Korea defector, Hyeonseo Lee, has revealed in a new book how she was forced to watch her first execution at the age of seven.
Lee and her classmates grew up convinced they lived in the ‘greatest nation on earth’ run by a benevolent god-like leader whom they loved in the way many children love Santa Claus. It wasn’t until she left North Korea at the age of 17 that she began to discover the full horror of the government that had fed her propaganda since birth.
All family life took place beneath the obligatory portraits of North Korea’s revered founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il which hung in every home. Failure to clean and look after them was a punishable offence. At supper Lee had to thank ‘Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung’ for her food before she could pick up her chopsticks.
The faintest hint of political disloyalty was enough to make an entire family – grandparents, parents and children – disappear. ‘Their house would be roped off; they’d be taken away in a truck at night, and not seen again,’ she says.
Public executions were used as a way to keep everyone in line. After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 she recalls a spate of executions of people who had not mourned sufficiently. Lee witnessed her first execution at seven.
In the mid-1990s North Korea suffered a famine which killed an estimated one million people. Lee’s first inkling of the crisis came when her mother showed her a letter from a colleague’s sister living in a neighboring province. “By the time you read this the five of us will no longer exist in this world,” it read, explaining that the family were lying on the floor waiting to die after not eating for weeks.
Lee, who still believed she lived in the world’s most prosperous country, was stunned. A few days later she came across a skeletal young mother lying in the street with a baby in her arms. She was close to death, but no one stopped.
Beggars and vagrant children began to appear in the town and corpses turned up in the river. ‘The smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere,’ Lee said, speaking at her book launch in London.
In her book she describes taking a train through a ‘landscape of hell’ to visit a relative. She saw people roaming the countryside ‘like living dead’. In the city of Hamhung she recalled people ‘hallucinating from hunger’ and ‘falling dead in the street’.
The government blamed the famine on US sanctions, but she later learnt it had more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union which had been subsidizing North Korea with food and fuel.