Hyeonseo Lee is a miniature hurricane and a woman of strong will — “obstinate” is how she puts it herself — she is not at all the doll-faced persona suggested in photographs. Now 36, she escaped on foot across the frozen Yalu river into China from her home in North Korea at the age of 17. For the next decade, she survived abusive Chinese pimps, gangsters, importunate marriage suitors, informers and police interrogators, and then escaped again to seek asylum and a new home in South Korea.
She is now one of the most prominent global voices of the subjugated North Korean people, a bestselling author and public speaker and a campaigner against the thriving Chinese trade in Korean sex slaves. Recalling the TED talk she gave in 2013 that propelled her to stardom, and which has so far been watched 7 million times, she says, “The TED talk I gave [me] a kind of responsibility. Every word I’m speaking, it’s not from myself. I’m speaking for and representing the people of communist North Korea.”
Lee is The Girl with Seven Names (her autobiographical book describes how she escaped detection in China, learning the language and living under a series of assumed identities), and unless the two Koreas are reunified, I will probably never know her real name, which must remain secret to protect relatives and friends left behind under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un. She chose the name Hyeonseo — whose two parts mean “sunshine” and “good luck” — to celebrate her emergence from the “long tunnels” of darkness into her new life of freedom in South Korea, and insists that even her mother must use it all the time.
The dangers are real. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has warned Lee that Pyongyang’s agents may try to kidnap her — it has happened to other critics of Pyongyang and Beijing — and make an example of her in North Korea. “That’s why the NIS tells me, every event, when you receive an invitation, better check if that’s a real event. And the one thing they told me is, don’t go to Southeast Asia, including China.”