N. Korean defector told to leave China after she criticizes gov’t policy

Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee

Author and human rights activist Hyeonseo Lee was told yesterday to cut short her visit to Beijing, after her sharp criticism of the Chinese policy of repatriating North Korean defectors got wide media attention.

In a Facebook post, Lee, a North Korean defector herself, said Chinese authorities told her she had to return to Seoul, South Korea, a day ahead of schedule.

“Honestly, I was hiding in the bathroom at the airport in Beijing waiting for my flight. When I arrived in South Korea, I felt so relieved and grateful for a country that will accept and protect me,” she says in her Facebook post.

Lee had come to Beijing for a “meet the author” event Sunday at The Bookworm-Beijing. Her memoir about her own escape from North Korea, The Girl With Seven Names, was published last year. During her talk, she criticized the Chinese policy of sending North Korean defectors back home, where human rights activists say they will be imprisoned or tortured for attempting to leave.

Chinese authorities, for their part, claim the North Koreans are “illegal migrant workers,” who must be deported.

Although Lee spoke to a mostly Western audience, a Chinese translation of an Agence France-Presse report about her appearance quickly made the rounds on Chinese media.

Lee said on Facebook that the translated AFP report of her remarks probably led to the Chinese demand that she return home. South Korean intelligence officials had warned her not to criticize China, and to only talk about North Korea and defectors from there.

Instead, she discussed the official treatment of defectors crossing the hazardous border between North Korea and the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, where there is a Korean-speaking minority.

Lee explained her reasons on her Facebook page:

“I’m glad that I’ve been able to spread the word in China about the government’s terrible treatment of North Korean defectors. I’ve felt very frightened to do this here, but I need the Chinese people to understand our pain, and encourage their government to adopt a humane policy toward North Korean defectors. I hope my efforts can inspire real change.”

Lee left her riverside hometown as a teenager, crossing the river into China. She lived under several assumed names — and was herself detained by Chinese police — before she successfully reached South Korea. Her book and the TED talk she gave in 2013 are widely available in China, despite the government’s close relationship to North Korea.

China is the Kim regime’s only close ally, but it tolerates criticism of North Korea. It’s not so keen on criticism of its own policies, however.

Last month, Miss World-Canada Anastasia Lin, was denied a Chinese entry visa to Hainan, where the Miss World pageant was being held. Lin was born in Hunan, but emigrated to Canada as a teenager. She is a follower of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice regarded as a dangerous cult in China. Her repeated public appearances to criticize China’s human rights record, especially as it regards to Falun Gong, likely led to the denial of her entry visa.

Mao Zedong famously said “women hold up half the sky,” but I guess they need to keep quiet while doing it.

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