Hyeonseo Lee was raised in a relatively privileged manner, a middle-class existence because of her stepfather’s job with the North Korean military, but even so she attended her first public execution at the age of seven — a stark lesson in obedience.
Seeing a man hanged under a railway bridge — one of many such public executions that are mandatory for people to see, she says — was only one of the grotesque means of control the regime waged against its citizens.
As in many authoritarian countries, for example, Lee’s family displayed portraits of the ruling family in their home, first Great Leader Kim Il-sung, then his son and heir Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and, later, his son and heir Kim Jong-un. The government gave them a special cloth for cleaning the portraits and nothing else. The pictures had to be the most prominent in any room, hung the highest, perfectly aligned and on a wall containing no other adornment.
Once a month, Lee says, officials wearing white gloves would visit every house in her neighborhood to inspect the portraits. If one was dusty or improperly hung, the family would be punished. It was with the portraits, one under each arm, that her stepfather emerged — blackened and coughing — after running back into their burning house, risking his life for their preservation.
“It was genuine (respect) and fear mixed together,” says Lee. “They had to show they were loyal to the regime in order to survive.” Continued