Continued story of Hyeonseo Lee, who was born in North Korea and now lives in South Korea where she is an activist for North Korea refugees.
I took a flight to China and headed toward the North Korean border. Since my family couldn’t speak Chinese, I had to guide them through more than 2,000 miles in China and then into Southeast Asia. The journey by bus took one week, and we were almost caught several times.
One time, our bus was stopped and boarded by a Chinese police officer. He took everyone’s ID cards and started asking questions. Since my family couldn’t understand Chinese, I thought we were going to be arrested. As the police officer approached my family, I quickly stood up and told him that these were deaf and dumb people that I was chaperoning. He looked at me suspiciously, but luckily, he believed me.
We made it all the way to the border of Laos, but I had to spend almost all of my money to bribe the border guards. Even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed for illegal border crossing.
After I paid the bribe and fine, my family was released after one month. Soon after, they were arrested and jailed again in the capital of Laos. This was one of the lowest points in my life — my mind and body felt completely drained, and I felt like a failure. I did everything to help my family get to freedom — and we came so close. And now my family was thrown in jail just a short distance from the South Korean embassy.
I went back and forth between the police station and immigration office, desperately trying to get my family out … but I didn’t have enough money to pay the bribes. I lost all hope.
At that moment, I heard a man’s voice asking me: “What’s wrong?” I was so surprised that a total stranger cared enough to ask. He would only give me his first name. With my broken English and a dictionary, I explained the situation, and without hesitating, the man went to the ATM and paid the rest of the money for my family and two other North Koreans to get out of jail.
I thanked him with all my heart, and then I asked him, “Why are you helping me?” … “I’m not helping you,” he said. “I’m helping the North Korean people.”
I realized that this was a symbolic moment in my life. The kind stranger symbolized new hope for me and other North Koreans when we needed it the most. He showed me that the kindness of strangers and the support of the international community are truly the rays of hope that the North Korean people need.
Eventually, after our long journey, my family and I were reunited in South Korea.