On Wednesday, April 13, the National Student’s Council of North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) held an exhibition and discussion at Wesleyan, featuring a guest speaker who was a student that escaped from North Korea. From 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., the students displayed objects from North Korea’s black market, such as radios and American films, as well as informational photos on Usdan’s first floor. Students also handed out pamphlets about the National Student’s Council of NKHR and another about public executions under Kim Jong-un’s rule.
At 4:30 p.m., students, faculty, and WesFest families gathered in PAC 001 for a discussion. Jeeyoung Lee, who has changed her name for safety, described her escape from North Korea. She had the help of translator Hyebin Choi.
“I escaped from North Korea five years ago,” Lee said. “And currently, I am a student at Korean University, and I am a senior. I would love to do more activities for North Korean human rights in the future.”
Lee said that she hadn’t always wanted to escape from North Korea because she had been brainwashed by her father, a high-ranking military general. When she finished high school, Lee yearned for higher education, but the corrupt examination and entry process barred her from a spot at the university, so Lee enrolled in the military. Her father’s high rank helped her get into the major party, which was a great honor. In the military, she worked for state security checking people’s phone calls and deciding if they should be allowed to connect.
After some time in the military, Lee clashed with her affluent colleagues. She had asked a friend to borrow some clothes because military members are not allowed to wear their uniforms in public, and Lee had no other clothing. When her friend made fun of Lee’s economic status, Lee beat her up, but lost, and later contacted Human Resources, who ultimately helped her. With the aid of her aunt, Lee transferred to a lower military rank to be with people who were of a similar economic status. She was given many tasks and felt happy and useful.
While Lee was serving in the military, her mom and sister were home suffering in starvation. After Lee’s fifth year of service, her mom and sister escaped to South Korea. Lee was then kicked out of the military because of her family’s escape. When she returned to her home village, the people shamed her for being exiled.
Lee tried to get a new job, but was unsuccessful because the government controls hiring. After the currency revolution of 2009, Lee had very little money and prices had skyrocketed. Lee was starving and suicidal, and her opinions about the North Korean government started to shift.
“My loyalty to the government changed into an anger for the government,” Lee said.
Lee’s mother called from South Korea and encouraged her to escape. However, Lee was angry with her because she had been kicked out of the military due to her mother’s escape, and she had been taught in school that South Korea is dangerous. It wasn’t until Lee’s sister called, who was attending a university, that Lee changed her mind.
“She changed my mind whenever she said the word ‘university,’ because I had been wanting to go to a university so badly in North Korea, but I couldn’t,” Lee said. “I thought that if my sister could go to a university in South Korea, then maybe I could, too, which was my dream.”
Lee made three failed attempts to cross the border before finally succeeding on her fourth. On her first try, Lee’s timing with her broker—the person trying to help her escape—was poor, so they were unable to meet up. On her second attempt, wire tappers caught Lee and her mother speaking on the phone. When military members came for her arrest, Lee hid behind a curtain while her broker lied and told them to leave. On Lee’s third attempt, she was preparing for her escape at the river when underground security began questioning Lee and the broker. Luckily, they had fabricated a story of adultery to tell the guards, so that the guards wouldn’t think they were trying to flee. Lee and the broker were arrested and beaten, but when Lee talked back to the guards, they let her go.
Lee’s mother never gave up on getting Lee to South Korea, so they developed a fourth escape plan. Lee was set to cross the river in August, but a big flood had come. She hid in her broker’s home for 21 days to wait for the flood to subside, but it did not. Lee had no more options. If she returned to her home village, she would be intensely questioned about where and why she had gone, and if she stayed, she would starve to death. Lee decided to attempt a river crossing, but brought poison with her so that if she was arrested she could take the poison, die immediately, and not have to give her arresters information about her broker.
The current was strong, and Lee was weak from not eating for several days. She was swept downstream and was losing consciousness. However, anger inspired Lee to open her eyes and swim with all her might to a Chinese broker who was waiting on the other side of the river. Lee made it to the broker and traveled for two months through many different countries before getting to South Korea.
During the question and answer session, Lee described adjusting to life in South Korea. She said that there is some discrimination against defectors, especially against older North Koreans. She also described her adjustments as culture shock. Lee also said that she wishes she could bring her brother and father to live with her, and that she enjoys her schoolwork at the university.
After Lee’s story, there was a panel discussion to provide different opinions and perspectives on the issues in North Korea.
Dakota An ’18 discussed American students’ perspectives on North Korea.
“So much focus is given to the dictatorship…that you don’t hear much about individual lives,” An said.
He also critiqued the caricatured portrayals of North Korea that he hears from students in and out of the classroom.
Next, Eunsil Lyu, a student working with NKHR, discussed South Korea’s view of North Korean human rights.
“At first, South Korean students didn’t know much about North Korean human rights…[so] we had to spread the word,” Lyu said.
After general knowledge of the issues had been raised publicly, Lyu worked to more actively involve students with the topic. For example, they recorded South Korean student voices to play over North Korean radio, and hosted UniWalk, an event to help North Korean defectors. Her goal is to encourage college students to engage.
Haenah Kwon ’17, who helped organize the event, was happy with the outcome.
“I really thought it was a great opportunity for Wesleyan students to engage in North Korean issues beyond politics and nuclear weapons,” Kwon said. “It’s always great to hear from someone who can share one’s own experience that’s different from anyone else’s.”