While interviewing North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee, her memories come tumbling out, some good but mostly bad: her disbelieving mother — lost and now found again — running towards her in a prison yard in Laos; the corpses of famine victims floating down the Yalu River; the handcarts to take away the dead so that Chinese visitors would not see evidence of North Korea’s shameful failure; a weakling flung on to the heaps of dead because he was probably going to die anyway and a passing Chinese driver laughing at the sight. “Sometimes the dead bodies wouldn’t be moved, so the smell of the decomposing flesh was everywhere, especially under the bridge and near the train station, because under the bridge is where not many people can see.”
North Koreans flee because they realize there is something wrong with their homeland. It is the lies they have been taught about the rest of the world that are deeply ingrained. “We learned that Americans are our primary enemies and all human scums live in America,” says Lee, who stunned her mother and brother by entering a relationship with an American man called Brian, before marrying him four years ago.
“South Korea was described as the poorest country in the world, where beggars were filling the streets. And then the most shocking thing for us was the Korean war — it was created by the American and South Korean enemies together. We never learned it was actually started by the North Korean regime. My mum, who was brainwashed for more than 60 years, she still asks me: ‘Show me the proof’.”
Lee wants reunification, she wants to be able to go back to her hometown on the Yalu, and she worries that young South Koreans do not care as much as their parents whether or not it ever happens. (“Many people in the past, they never predicted German reunification,” she says hopefully, “but it did happen very abruptly.”).
The importance of Lee’s story rests on her intimate understanding of China. … The communist government in Beijing treats North Korean refugees with varying degrees of cruelty and indifference, depending on the winds of geopolitics. “We refugees [are a political punching bag] between China and South Korea and North Korea. China has all the keys right now. .. So if … China stops supporting North Korea, within one week or 10 days they can make North Korea chaos. I wish they could do more, but they are not doing it at all.”