My escape from North Korea | Hyeonseo Lee

By | September 2, 2019

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast When I was little, I thought my country
was the best on the planet. And I grew up singing a song
called “Nothing To Envy.” And I was very proud. In school, we spent a lot of time
studying the history of Kim Il-Sung, but we never learned much
about the outside world, except that America, South Korea,
Japan are the enemies. Although I often wondered
about the outside world, I thought I would spend
my entire life in North Korea, until everything suddenly changed. When I was seven years old,
I saw my first public execution. But I thought my life
in North Korea was normal. My family was not poor, and myself, I had never
experienced hunger. But one day, in 1995,
my mom brought home a letter from a coworker’s sister. It read, “When you read this, our five family members
will not exist in this world, because we haven’t eaten
for the past three weeks. We are lying on the floor together, and our bodies are so weak,
we are waiting to die.” I was so shocked. This was the first time I heard
that people in my country were suffering. Soon after, when I was walking
past a train station, I saw something terrible that to this day
I can’t erase from my memory. A lifeless woman was lying on the ground, while an emaciated child in her arms just stared helplessly
at his mother’s face. But nobody helped them, because they were so focused on taking
care of themselves and their families. A huge famine hit North Korea
in the mid-1990s. Ultimately, more than a million
North Koreans died during the famine, and many only survived by eating
grass, bugs and tree bark. Power outages also became
more and more frequent, so everything around me
was completely dark at night, except for the sea of lights in China, just across the river from my home. I always wondered
why they had lights, but we didn’t. This is a satellite picture
showing North Korea at night, compared to neighbors. This is the Amnok River, which serves as a part of the border
between North Korea and China. As you can see, the river can be
very narrow at certain points, allowing North Koreans to secretly cross. But many die. Sometimes, I saw dead bodies
floating down the river. I can’t reveal many details
about how I left North Korea, but I only can say that
during the ugly years of the famine, I was sent to China to live
with distant relatives. But I only thought that I would
be separated from my family for a short time. I could have never imagined that it would take 14 years
to live together. In China, it was hard living
as a young girl without my family. I had no idea what life
was going to be like as a North Korean refugee. But I soon learned it’s not
only extremely difficult, it’s also very dangerous, since North Korean refugees are considered
in China as illegal migrants. So I was living in constant fear
that my identity could be revealed, and I would be repatriated
to a horrible fate, back in North Korea. One day, my worst nightmare came true, when I was caught by the Chinese police, and brought to the police station
for interrogation. Someone had accused me
of being North Korean, so they tested my Chinese
language abilities, and asked me tons of questions. I was so scared. I thought my heart was going to explode. If anything seemed unnatural,
I could be imprisoned and repatriated. I thought my life was over. But I managed to control
all the emotions inside me, and answer the questions. After they finished questioning me, one official said to another, “This was a false report.
She’s not North Korean.” And they let me go. It was a miracle. Some North Koreans in China
seek asylum in foreign embassies. But many can be caught
by the Chinese police, and repatriated. These girls were so lucky. Even though they were caught, they were eventually released,
after heavy international pressure. These North Koreans were not so lucky. Every year, countless North Koreans
are caught in China and repatriated to North Korea, where they can be tortured, imprisoned,
or publicly executed. Even though I was
really fortunate to get out, many other North Koreans
have not been so lucky. It’s tragic that North Koreans
have to hide their identities and struggle so hard just to survive. Even after learning a new
language and getting a job, their whole world can be turned
upside down in an instant. That’s why, after 10 years
of hiding my identity, I decided to risk going to South Korea. And I started a new life yet again. Settling down in South Korea was a lot more challenging
than I had expected. English was so important in South Korea, so I had to start learning
my third language. Also, I realized there was a wide gap
between North and South. We are all Korean, but inside, we have become very different,
due to 67 years of division. I even went through an identity crisis. Am I South Korean or North Korean? Where am I from? Who am I? Suddenly, there was no country
I could proudly call my own. Even though adjusting to life
in South Korea was not easy, I made a plan — I started studying
for the university entrance exam. Just as I was starting
to get used to my new life, I received a shocking phone call. The North Korean authorities
intercepted some money that I sent to my family, and, as a punishment, my family
was going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside. They had to get out quickly. So I started planning
how to help them escape. North Koreans have to travel
incredible distances on the path to freedom. It’s almost impossible to cross the border between North Korea and South Korea. So, ironically, I took
a flight back to China and headed toward the North Korean border. Since my family couldn’t speak Chinese, I had to guide them somehow
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 I.D. cards, and he started asking them questions. Since my family couldn’t
understand Chinese, I thought my family
was going to be arrested. As the Chinese officer
approached my family, I impulsively stood up, and I told him that these are 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 my money to bribe the border guards in Laos. But even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed
for illegal border crossing. After I paid the fine and bribe, my family was released in one month. But soon after, my family
was arrested and jailed again, in the capital of Laos. This was one of the lowest
points in my life. I did everything to get
my family to freedom, and we came so close, but my family was thrown in jail, just a short distance
from the South Korean embassy. I went back and forth
between the immigration office and the police station, desperately trying to get my family out. but I didn’t have enough money
to pay a bribe or fine anymore. I lost all hope. At that moment, I heard
one man’s voice ask me, “What’s wrong?” I was so surprised that a total stranger
cared enough to ask. In my broken English,
and with a dictionary, I explained the situation,
and without hesitating, the man went to the ATM, and he 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 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 the North Korean people, when we needed it most. And he showed me
that the kindness of strangers and the support
of the international community are truly the rays of hope
we North Korean people need. Eventually, after our long journey, my family and I were reunited
in South Korea. But getting to freedom
is only half the battle. Many North Koreans
are separated from their families, and when they arrive in a new country, they start with little or no money. So we can benefit
from the international community for education, English language training,
job training, and more. We can also act as a bridge between the people inside North Korea
and the outside world. Because many of us stay in contact
with family members still inside, and we send information and money that is helping to change
North Korea from inside. I’ve been so lucky, received
so much help and inspiration in my life, so I want to help give
aspiring North Koreans a chance to prosper
with international support. I’m confident that you will see
more and more North Koreans succeeding all over the world, including the TED stage. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “My escape from North Korea | Hyeonseo Lee

  1. mariahthesunflower Post author

    Her story is on a story channel MinuteVideos

  2. Robbie Abbott Ramsay Post author

    2.6.9k chinese and Kim Jong-Un disliked this video

  3. א!ghtçørê pѕчchσ Post author

    I just wanna thank YouTube for putting this in my recommend page…

  4. grxy b dxlxn Post author

    this woman is so strong and incredible. i hope she’s doing well ❤️

  5. Momoko C Post author

    Why is the speech true.. North Korea is really close to my country.
    Has the time stopped for a longtime there? I couldn't help being sad while watching the movie.

  6. Chewi Post author

    I don't know if Canada takes in North Korean defectors, but if we did I know they would be welcome here in our communities. I hope to see in my lifetime that people are able to leave without danger. I know South Korea is the favourable country to immagrate to because it is the same language and there are programs in place to help North Koreans live normal lives in South Korean society. I want to see Canada offer support systems for North Korean defectors as well. I know people in my city would welcome them with open arms.

  7. black ninja Post author

    I think she is telling the truth unlike yeon mi park, she is a lier. She change her story in every interview

  8. WBFinger dancer Post author

    but china have no choice but send these people back. if they allow,there will be millions of people crossing the border into china. that will be a disaster to chinese society

  9. Everything In One Post author

    Kim jong Un's grandpa : won the japanese war
    Kim's father: Strong relation between foreign countries
    Kim jong un: hair and fat

  10. Empress517 Post author

    I was in tears listening to her struggles. Wow her and her family went through a lot. We get so busy with our lives that we forget some people truly have struggles to deal with

  11. Neil lavilla Post author

    Proud and honor to represent the Phillipines 😅❤❤ a peaceful country ❤

  12. Matteo Sempresotutto Post author

    I have to say that her English is honestly better than most natives.

  13. Jane Xian Post author

    China is so much better… I feel privileged for the first time.

  14. Erencan Özkan Post author

    How didn’t she get imprisoned when she was in Chinese police station without an Chinese ID card and not being in Chinese Fingerprint/ID system? How did she and her family go to South Korea without their passport? So much blanks in her story. – Kızın hikayesinde şu eksiklik dikkatimi çekti: Çin kimlik kartı olmadan nasıl kurtuldu o polis istasyonundan ve Güney Kore’ye, Laos’a nasıl girdiler kimliksiz,pasaportsuz?

  15. Malayka CHEMGNIE FOKOU Post author

    I am so shocked about this kind of hunger !!! Fighting for the family ! She is such a strong girl. China have to be more clever with them.

  16. rhea waterfall Post author

    I want to help North Korean defectors but I don’t know how

  17. SEIMYUNG VACTRON CO., LTD Post author

    I was dating with this girl back in 2012, but then i didn’t know she was from north korea.

  18. Knife Jack Post author

    In 1960s the same things happened in my country.People escape to other countries to escape the Cultural revolution.They came to US ,Soviet Union,HK(still a colony of UK),Vietnam,and even North Korea.Now,may their god bless them.

  19. Princess Zoey Post author

    Maxpein Moon-Enrile is in north korea. She can save you❤

  20. Nata scha Post author

    I read her book and she is such a strong and amazing woman! I wish every North Korean, who wants to leave the country, a lot of luck. Everyone deserves a nice life.

  21. Ayşen Dağdelen Post author

    Kız o kdar güçlü ki hayran kaldım. Umarım bir gün Kuzey Koreli insanlar baskı hissetmeden haklarının elinden alınmadığı o günlere kısa sürede kavuşurlar.

  22. Jessica5566 Xu Post author


  23. Timtam Walnut Post author

    I never knew that North Korea was that bad. I hope this will all change one day.

  24. 翁大大 Post author

    It's sad to see our brothers and sisters suffer like that in N Korea.My family members died because of communist too.I wish one day Chinese Vietnamese and Koreans stop fighting each other and start helping each other.We all suffer from both communist and Japanese.We share the same last names as well.I hope one day our ppl can come as one so we can defeat the evil communists together.

  25. zingiau Tan Post author

    China is a big poor developing country, there is no way for them to accept refugees from other countries because their citizens could not get enough food.

  26. Guinnea Pig ASMR Guinnea Pig ASMR Post author

    I like watching the north korea vids cuz they are very intresting

  27. g00d_ night Post author

    6 years since this video came out and I still literally watch this every time whenever I login into my TED account. I am just an ordinary South Korean student; but I was fully shook by her 12-min long speech. Her words and phrases teached me how fortunate I am- and how our same Koreans go through these hardships, only because they are born at the wrong country. I wish she would continue to tesser well in South Korea, since she went through all these years desperate to escape.

  28. emotional emon Post author

    Even if you escape North Korea, there are many dangerous countries around you.

  29. deepak limbu Post author

    women like herself are more than a hero. its twice as hard for a women to do what she did, crossing several boarders and risking to get to her family. salute her.

  30. Bogdan Zivkovic Post author

    People, please stop believing sensationalist stories from those escapees. These people usually have no job but are paid to spread anti-North Korean propaganda through selling sensationalist stories to other people.

  31. Bell Bell Post author

    Wow I can't imagine what people in north Korea are going through

  32. mm Post author

    Özgürlük en önemli şey. Atalarımızdan Allah razı olsun. Özgürlük uğrunda ne canlar gitti, onlar sayesinde Allahın izni ile özgürüz. Şükürler olsun.

  33. Serin Oh Post author

    It's the first time I saw this and I feel inspired by her story. The fact that she risked everything even her life while there was the threat of being killed or imprisoned or sent back to NK to be tortured, is already an honorable deed. If people can be as selfless like her, then we can find more good in this world. Also, the stranger who helped her, what kind of person could have helped a stranger just like that? Nowadays, when it comes to money, you just don't know who to trust, but that stranger still helped her while knowing the fact their money would be gone for good. It's probably because he knows in his heart that it will help someone in dire need that he did not hesitate and I guess that's what being human is. We help someone else unconditionally without waiting for something in return. We do good even if nobody or no huge audience is looking. That's probably the kind of deed someone like her will forever remember and be thankful of. And it's really a blessing that this north korean is living the life of a free person. That alone is already a repayment to whoever who helped her.

  34. Erica Huang Post author

    She has a biography called "the girl with seven names"

  35. lynlovescake Post author

    For anyone interested, you guys should definitely read her memoir. It was one of the most interesting memoirs i’ve ever read!

  36. Cuong Nguyen Post author

    You are a strong girl. Your life have many challenges but you can be passed them by the magical way.

  37. Dere Chan Post author

    Je ne peux pas imaginer ce que tu as pu enduré…😥 Tu a été très courageuse tout au long de ton périple ton histoire m'a mise les larmes aus yeux.😢 Je savais que dans ce monde tout le monde n'était pas égaux et ton histoire l'a encore plus prouvé….😔 J'espère qu'un jour la Corée du Nord pourra être libérée de ce lourd fardeau ainsi que les autres pays qui souffrent….🙂 Je vous souhaite bon courage à tout ce qui rencontre des difficultés dans la vie même si ça ne se fera pas en un jour j'espère que tout vos problèmes sera réglé!😁 ENCORE BON COURAGE!

  38. Isabelle Winter Post author

    I know this is late but I cry every time I watch this video

  39. Gael Post author

    It‘s sad that 6 years later it‘s still a hot theme…

    Hope Kim Jong-Un is gonna die soon because he‘s fat af.

  40. Viki Post author

    Really…China send back the North Korean refuggies, whos life were in danger?????

  41. Mu sissor Post author


  42. 永恒真理 Post author


  43. Hitarth Joshi Post author

    Thank to god that you are not born in North Korea!! 😥

  44. SKULL gaming Post author

    If kim jung un die in future will this country will be free or other politicians are also like him
    And if everyone will be free just with that one death so how about praying for his death rather then worrying about to change his mentality
    I know my idea is bit scary but just praying maybe as lots of terrorist dies he can also die for sake of people's happiness, like heart attack, sudden chocking due t some kind of food etc . What u guys think???

  45. Sarah Rasmussen Post author

    And here I am, complaining about gaining weight

  46. Yann Yú Post author


  47. mahmut123456 Post author

    Too bad North Korea has no oil. They would have been freed long time ago.

  48. Bexy Evans Post author

    God has your back. He loves you. Jesus can give you TRUE freedom.

  49. İskender Tuna Post author

    Lan İngilizce bu, başlığı niye Türkçe yaptınız olum

  50. Вадим Корнеев Post author

    Сугубо моё мнение, но мне кажется, что нужно наказать её за пропаганду и призывы к незаконному пересечению границы, дачу взятки и так далее… Это ведь нарушение закона, боже. Понимаю, что покажется преувеличением, но это тоже самое, что если она будет рассказывать, как убивала людей и призывать попробовать это слушателей.

  51. Hejahara Dirangaren Post author

    Anyone who’s still watching this September 1,2019 😥

    Please pray the people in North Korean who suffer today 😔😔

  52. Kqro GT Post author

    Lan bunlar propaganda inanmayın kuzey korede öyle bişey yok amerikalıların propagandası bu kuzey koreyi kötü gösterip ırak afganistan gibi işgal edicek orayıda

  53. Nishant Tripathi Post author

    Had she Come to India or somehow got a chance to MEA, India, we would have welcomed her by giving permanent Citizenship in India….
    We are a Democracy and We Truly Respect the Courage with which she Escaped, Helped Her Family, and is telling the miserable happenings now on stage…..
    I must admit that notwithstanding that we are still a Developing and have a huge population, still, we want to help those deserve it.
    India for the World Always.

  54. MamelukkiKala Post author

    You can hear her voice cracking which is just heart breaking..


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