When famine struck in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Korean government initiated a wide public education campaign — “Let us eat two meals a day” was the slogan, accompanied by information on how eating less was healthier.
As food distribution worsened and after the death of her stepfather, who had been arrested by military police on suspicions about his business deals and apparently killed himself while in hospital, the intense impact of famine became obvious.
“I saw people dying on the street. I was shocked. If we went near the train station or under the bridge we can easily see those dead bodies everywhere and the smells of decomposing bodies,” she says.
It troubled Lee not just emotionally, but intellectually. All her education and the propaganda told her North Korea was the greatest country on Earth, its leader could change the weather and her homeland was a beacon of light in a world immersed in darkness.
Across the river, there were the lights, twinkling in the Chinese town of Changbai. “I wanted to find out the answer myself by seeing the real life in China with my own eyes and I was very young, naive girl at the time so I was brave. I took the huge risk by crossing the border.”
The frozen river was narrow near her home and could be crossed with ease. She intended a “sneak visit,” she says, to see China, visit her father’s relatives there and return. She did not intend to defect.
But in China she saw her upbringing had been a lie. For the first time, she heard people speaking openly about the North Korean regime. She heard Kim Jong-un called a “bastard” and the country’s starvation blamed on his failed economic policy.
“It was shocking to me; how can you make fun of our Dear Leader like that?” she says. And at first it was hard to accept, she still wanted to respect her country — a common thing, she learned, for those who have just fled North Korea.
She says now she knows how naive she was, about that as well as how hard her journey would be. Walking across the river was perhaps the easiest part.