As a 17-year-old, Hyeonseo Lee’s childhood home in North Korea overlooked the border with China. Each night as North Korea plunged into darkness because of electricity shortages, she could see the twinkling lights across the border, a consistent puzzle without an answer.
“I think that because of the environment I grew up in … it raised a lot of questions, especially living on the border with China,” she told news.com.au. While Lee had been raised to believe that North Korea was the best country on the planet and even grew up singing the song Nothing to Envy, she gradually she started to think, “their life (in China) looks superior”.
“In the daytime I saw people die on the street, there were a lot of beggars on the street in my hometown,” she said. Lee saw her first execution at just seven years of age, and was shocked when she learned that people around her were dying of starvation.
Because her hometown was so close to the border, Lee’s home was able to receive Chinese television signals and this also raised questions. “It was illegal to watch … but I did my best to watch, it completely transformed my thought at the time.”
Lee decided to see for herself what life in China was like and made the dangerous journey across the frozen Yalu River, which separated the two countries. She also had the help of a border guard. At the time she innocently thought she would just make a quick visit and then return.
“But the moment I crossed the border, everything changed, after that moment, I couldn’t go back,” she said. Complications with the North Korean security police meant she was forced to live with relatives in China as an illegal immigrant.
She lived in fear that she would be discovered and sent back to North Korea, where torture for defectors was normal. At one point Lee was interrogated by police but they released her because her Chinese speaking skills convinced them that she was not North Korean.