‘It’s up to you to get life rolling’
By Yun Suh-young
It’s not easy living as a defector in South Korea. It’s also not easy being a student in South Korea; but being a defector “student” in South Korea is even harder. But here’s a lady who’s successfully managing to be both. What is more, she is a sought-after participant at international forums like the one she just arrived from.
Lee Hyeon-seo, a 30 year-old sophomore at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, was the only North Korean to participate in the Pacific Forum CSIS which was held last week in Hawaii. The forum is run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a renowned non-profit international policy institution, at which participants discuss and analyze political, security, and strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific region. The entire program is conducted in English.
“I think I’m very lucky. I have an American friend who is an officer in the U.S. military and he recommended me for the forum. They were apparently looking for a North Korean participant. This is the second time I’ve participated. Last year, there were five North Korean defectors at the forum held in Korea. This year, only one was selected out of those five to go to Hawaii and that happened to be me,” said Lee when asked how she came to participate in such a prestigious forum.
“My story was published in the Wall Street Journal last year. They had asked me to write a story about my life. I think that was a big factor that got me selected at the forum. I was the only undergraduate student at the forum where the lowest academic background of other participants was a master’s degree. I was very honored and thankful to have been given the opportunity.”
Lee left North Korea in the winter of 1998. It was not because living there was painful. In fact, she grew up in a middleclass family and was not that economically challenged as most North Koreans are known to be. She decided to leave the country when a rumor spread among her neighbors that she had defected.
“People here like to talk about other people, but in North Korea, its worse. I simply went to visit my cousin’s house in China which was very close to my house in Yanggang Province. We lived on the border. But rumors spread that I fled. When I came back, my mother told me it would be better to leave the area rather than be treated like a traitor forever,” said Lee.
She lived in China for 10 years, nine of those in Shanghai. She said she moved to the city because the police didn’t track down defectors there.
“I learned Chinese for two years and a cousin helped me get Chinese citizenship so living in Shanghai wasn’t a problem. I missed my family though,” she said.
It was not until 2004 that she thought about coming to South Korea.
“I slowly became interested in coming to South Korea as I saw on the news North Korean defectors trying to enter the South Korean embassy in Beijing. A few years later, a friend of mine suggested that we move to South Korea and experience how life is there. We meant to go back to Shanghai if we didn’t like it,” she said.
Settling here wasn’t too difficult for Lee because she was used to South Korean culture from watching television dramas.
“Although my body was in China, I was immersed in Korean culture. When I stayed there, I sounded more South Korean than I am now. I did suffer from an identity crisis for a year when I first came, but that, too, was solved as time passed,” she said.
She now lives with her family who defected to the South last year.
But her life here was rocky in the beginning ― she was at a loss about what she should do.
“I had no plans, whatsoever. I didn’t know what to do or what I wanted to do. I realized that there was nothing I really could do as a North Korean defector. I did work for a while with a low wage of 1.2 million won. Then it hit me: If I didn’t study, I could live like this forever,” said Lee.
“The length of one’s educational career is very important in South Korean society. I didn’t want to remain a low-wage worker forever. So I decided to go to college.”
That was the beginning of her school life. She decided to enter a university and began to study for it. And this began with English.
“I started studying English because I wanted to go to college. English was an important subject for getting into college. I couldn’t speak the language at all. It was my first time studying it so I couldn’t apply to colleges that required an English score. At my university, however, they only asked for an interview. I took classes from the British Embassy which provided a free one-year English program for North Korean defectors. I was luckily selected,” she said.
Entering college was an eye-opener for Lee to the joy of studying. It was difficult but fun, she said.
“I started from the bottom. The years of education we receive in North Korea are shorter than South Korea. The teachers also often skip class. They get low pay. What we learn there isn’t really helpful here so I had to start from rock bottom at an older age. But I realized that if I worked hard, then I could do it. I could catch up,” she said confidently.
“College education here is entirely up to the students. Those who work hard will reap much from classes whereas those who don’t won’t get much out of it. It’s pitiful that the classes here are mostly taught by rote though. So from now on, I’m going to study on my own by reading books other than textbooks.”
What was her dream?
“When I applied to college, I chose the Chinese language as a major because I wanted to become a simultaneous interpreter. I also thought of becoming a CEO at a trade company,” she said.
“But my dream changed as my heart slowly moved away from China. I began to learn about human rights and was disappointed that the country would not accept North Korean defectors as refugees. Now I’m thinking of working at an NGO or the UN.”
She wants to be the first North Korean to make speeches at conferences without an interpreter.
“When North Korean defectors make speeches about North Korean human rights issues in the United States, they speak in Korean and someone has to interpret for them. But the interpretation makes the speech less exciting. I want to be the first North Korean defector to be able to make those speeches in English,” said Lee.
The college sophomore was unsure about her ultimate goal.
“I don’t know what I want to end up doing in the end. I’ll think about my career in the coming years. But whatever it is, I want to be the first North Korean to do it,” she said beaming.
Her life is already on the roll. Her next pleasant worry is to decide whether or not to grab a prestigious opportunity _ a fellowship program offered by the CSIS.