Taken with a cellphone camera, the hour-long video captures most of Lee’s remarks at The Bookworm-Beijing before a small, mostly non-Chinese audience. The video is shaky and the audio is not especially clear. I’ve provided a partial transcript below.
Lee’s sharp criticism of China’s policy to repatriate defectors back to North Korea was already reported by Agence France Presse, and re-published widely across Chinese social media the same day. Chinese immigration officials then told Lee she would have to cut short her visit to China, and return home to South Korea immediately.
Lee is the author of The Girl with Seven Names, a memoir of her escape in 1997 at the age of 17 from her hometown into neighboring China, and her eventual arrival in South Korea in 2008. She later returned to northern China to smuggle her mother and brother across China to join her in South Korea.
She has also appeared at TED events and spoken to human rights organizations across the world about the situation in North Korea, and the hardships defectors face once they decide to leave the “Hermit Kingdom.”
The Wall Street Journal published an editorial about Lee and her China adventure on April 7, praising her courage for speaking out in China and criticizing China’s divided policy regarding refugees.
China has signed the international Refugee Convention banning “refoulement” of refugees to countries where they face persecution. Yet it denies North Korean refugees access to consulates and embassies, detains them in abusive conditions and repatriates them. Such conduct “could amount to aiding and abetting” North Korean “crimes against humanity,” a United Nations panel found in 2014.
Beijing tried to stymie the U.N. inquiry at every turn, but its report makes for bracing reading. Investigators found that when refugees “are apprehended or forcibly repatriated,” North Korean authorities “systematically subject them to persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases, sexual violence.” Refugees “found to have been in contact with officials or nationals from [South Korea] or with Christian churches may be forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”
The UN reports corroborates what Lee said in her informal talk in Beijing.
Here is the video, posted by YouTube user Tomm Y, who said he missed some of the talk for a bathroom break. I’d suggest just listening to the audio, as the video is very shaky and rarely shows Lee’s face. My partial and first attempt at a transcript follows. Corrections are welcome. Please leave comments below.
After some introductory remarks, the moderator asks for a show of hands from people who have visited North Korea, or who intend to visit there. Several people raise their hands. He then asks Lee what she thinks about foreign tourism to North Korea.
LEE: “Change your mind. It’s a propaganda tool — tourism in North Korea.” She says people in Pyongyang are given standard answers to questions that foreigners might ask. “What you see, what you hear is all fake. Certainly you will not get out of Pyongyang” to see “ordinary people” outside the tightly controlled capital.
Later, she says that people don’t understand how thoroughly North Koreans are brainwashed “from the moment you are born. You only know Communism.” Children learn their mother’s name, their father’s name, and the dear leader’s name. Their first sentence must be to thank the dear leader. She said, “I was happy, because I didn’t know another life existed.” Even seeing executions and famine, North Koreans are told that people in other countries suffered the same as in North Korea, or even worse.
MODERATOR: Mentions that Lee was in a sense an accidental defector, because she entered China at age 17 expecting to stay a week and then return home.
LEE: “Some people are criticizing me saying I am an accidental defector, so I am not a defector, but I am a defector.” She said she meant to escape, she could die in North Korea or die on the way to the world outside. She lived next to the Chinese border. “It was illegal to watch Chinese TV, and I realized my TV could pick up Chinese signals. … so I watched it at night .. despite dangers from police checking. … We learned in school that North Korea was superior to China, and although we didn’t know Chinese,” I could see it wasn’t true.
“Was the Chinese TV fake, or was what I was learning fake?”
“I could sense something was different, I thought it was more free.” “The desire of going outside made me cross the border. I knew it wasn’t crossing a normal river, I was crossing the border.” “I was lucky, I’m still lucky, even though I suffered a lot, compared to North Koreans, I am lucky.” She said she didn’t realize at the time she would have so many troubles after crossing into China. “I thought one week later I would go home.”
MODERATOR asks why she waited so long to make the jump to South Korea.
LEE: “I was brainwashed. … I didn’t know [if I should.] We were taught South Koreea is our enemy, I would betray my country, and maybe I would kill my family in North Korea. If I go to South Korea, they would go to a concentration camp.” But then she heard that many defectors are fleeing the country, to go to South Korea. “I was really trying to get to the South Korea embassy in Beijing. It didn’t work. I gave up. It took four years to get to South Korea. In 2008 I finally sought asylum in South Korea from Shanghai.”
[In a TEDxKyoto talk, Lee said the South Korea immigration police did not believe she was a North Korean, because her Chinese passport and ID card looked authentic, and they told her to take the next plane back to Shanghai.]
MODERATOR asks her about bringing her family to South Korea.
LEE: “There are two kinds of defectors: people who really suffered, and others like my family who didn’t. Her family [suffers] a lot of stress. They can’t escape from the past, because they never really suffered. They thought going to South Korea is like a heaven, but it’s not [in]real life.” “In 2009 I took a huge risk to bring my family out. I wanted to show them this wonderful free world.” … “If I knew all the answers of what would happen in China,” she would not have done it. There were so many difficulties in China, because it was the 60th anniversary of the founding of China, so security was higher. “I thought after crossing into Laos, everything would be OK, but my family was caught by the Lao police.” It took another year. If they had been caught while in China, they would would be repatriated to North Korea, and publicly executed. “I had the enemy’s passport.” “Every single minute [in China] killed us,” because of that fear.
She said her brother almost crossed back over the river to their hometown. “In South Korea, he said he was going back to North Korea.” She tried to persuade him not to. He even bought the North Korean style pants, because they can’t wear jeans in North Korea. “I took this huge risk in 2009 and still they’re not happy and they wanted to go back. Still I am struggling with that … Did I do the right things for my family … especially to my mom? She was brainwashed more than 50 years. For her it really hard for her to escape the brainwash.”
MODERATOR: What are you saying in China? This is your first time speaking out in China.
LEE: “To come here, it took me many months, because as a North Korean defector, sitting here talking about this publicly it is a suicide bomb. The Chinese government is not accepting North Korean defectors even though I have a South Korean passport. They have a right to repatriate me to North Korea. That’s why no North Korean defector until today gave a public speech in China. That’s why I’m the first.” … “This is exactly the right place to talk about these issues, because after 2013 I realized so many Chinese people sent messages … supporting me. Actually at the time I hated Chinese people, because I received a lot of hurt from Chinese people. There’s a lot of human traffickers — even North Korean females are sold as merchandise, as slaves, as wives of Chinese men, even today, you know? They’re even sold for like $80 … that’s why I hated Chinese people they gave North Koreans too much pain.”
“But I think the Chinese people don’t know about this story — I thought all Chinese people knew about these issues. In 2013, I realized people here don’t know about this at all. It won’t affect the Chinese government, because they’re not listening. They still support the North Korean regime, though they don’t have a obligation to … “At least I will tell the truth to the people in here, the ordinary Chinese people.” … “We have two faces towards China. To China we say they are our friends, but in North Korea we are told we shouldn’t trust China.” … “Please share this with your people.”
“China is not accepting us as normal refugees. They call us migrants. We suffered for seven decades with a dictator. China knows what will happen to the defectors after repatriation” [When she was in China, police were] checking apartments, checking ID cards. Some of my friends were even disappeared in the middle of the night and repatriated.”
“I just want to ask very small thing. This is the only place we can get through, but the Chinese government is doing their best to capture them [defectors], they are killing them.” She said torture is normal, as are imprisonment, execution, and punishing defectors’ families. “But China says they will be OK, which is a huge lie.”
She pleaded for the government to abandon deliberate searches of defectors. “At least please don’t try to catch them, don’t try to prevent their way to freedom. They want to pass here freely to enter Thailand to seek asylum to North Korea. At least you can do this. ” “They are not getting a free ticket. They’re paying. Everywhere they are paying. If the Chinese government can do me this favor, I would be very very grateful. ”
Lee said South Korean intelligence agents were worried about her coming, and tried their best to prevent her from coming to Beijing They told her not to mention anything about China and the Chinese government, because it could damage the relationship between South Korea and China even more. It could damage the defectors in the South. “How can it damage them more than” the current situation?
“Please let them pass this land freely,” Lee repeated.
MODERATOR: What about fake stories from some defectors?
LEE: “Yeah, we have a problem now about defectors making up stories for their own benefits or for money. But there are 2-3 defectors doing this.” She said there are 30,000 victims living in the South, plus thousands more in hiding in China. “It’s really sad. It’s hard to believe their stories. Maybe I have to think it’s true or not.”
She said the worst experience was when a New York book reviewer asked her how her story could be true. “I said it was not a sensationalized story, there was no torture, no concentration camp,.. I wrote this book to tell the truth. It’s not all miserable stories. I want to tell how my family who never suffered lived.”
The floor was opened to questions from the audience.
Q1: Where do pictures of the leader come from? Do you have to buy them, or are they provided?
LEE: Thee government provides it. If they destroyed, there are investigations. The colors can’t fade. In the rainy season, her family’s only fan was directed on the pictures [of the Kims] so the colors would not fade. It would be trouble.” She recounted the episode from her memoir when her house caught fire. Her father rescued the pictures, and “he was praised for doing so. That’s the only way for ordinary people to become heroic. Some people set their homes on fire deliberately, to become a hero. The regime is craziness. Some people have really died saving those pictures.” She said everyone must wear a patriotic pin on their chest. And families have had to change names if they had the same names as the Kims.
Q2: How will reunification come about? How will North Koreans respond to it?
LEE: [As a child] “we were singing about reunification. We thought South Koreans were suffering under American oppression, they were being executed.” — We thought we don’t have to suffer like South Korea. During the famine, they didn’t know the suffering was the government’s fault, thought it was the sanctions by America. … After the famine ended, attitudes changed, “they knew South Korea is richer. Now they want reunification secretly.” China helped during famine, so people knew China was better off.
Q3: You mentioned the support China gives to NK, but isn’t Chinese removing some support?
LEE: “They didn’t support us really.” There are smugglers from China. There is a black market system. “When I was in North Korea, the Chinese were taking all the good resources from North Korea.” … So many trucks coming into North Korea with cheap stuff, and leaving with wood. “China is the only way to get illicit materials.” There are lot of Chinese companies in North Korea.
Q4: Is there anyone following you now?
LEE: That’s private.
Q5: Why is China doing what North Korea wants to them to do?
LEE: That’s my point. Why is China doing what North Korea tells them to do? Why let North Korea dictate?
Q6: What you feel about North Korea and Dennis Rodman’s visit?
LEE: He was used as a propaganda tool. We [are taught that we] can’t accept other country’s cultures. We think all men look like him. [laughter] We would make fun of those people [like Rodman]. He sang songs in front of the young dictator. That’s why they wanted him. [That is, to act like a court jester.] “They got enough and won’t invite him any more.”
Q7: How about Kim Jong-Un’s regime?
LEE: “What he’s showing is that it’s totally insane. He’s the worst one, worse than his father. [He’s not just killing ordinary people, he’s killing higher officers, his own uncles. So, his situation is not stable. Anything can happen in NK.” Things that happen we don’t know. They have to show leadership. Many officers try to seek asylum secretly. .. maybe it will collapse. No one expected Germany’s reunification, so maybe reunification will happen … But it’s a different situation … so you cant compare them … But it can happen.
Q8: What about travel agencies that organize tours of North Korea who North Koreans will benefit from seeing foreigners?
LEE: “They are trying to make money.” Pyongyang knows foreigners are rich … [They will tell us] foreigners are trying to come to find problems. We have to be careful.” Told no candies, no pictures, no gifts from foreigners …
Q9: How are the people dealing with sanctions?
LEE: “The sanctions will not hurt ordinary people. It only hurts the regime, [because] there are no hard currencies.” Ordinary people don’t know about the sanctions.
Q10: Why don’t more North Koreans flee, is it brainwashing?
LEE: Now there is a barrier across the Chinese border, wire fences. After 2000, the North Korean regime put up fences, land mines, CCTV” on the northern border. Border didn’t shoot defectors before, but if you didn’t get permission you could get shot, even with bribes. Now the government tells the border police if they don’t take money, they will get promotions, etc. so people can’t trust the border police now. “People are not brainwashed, but the border situation is so difficult, it’s like the Berlin wall.” She said if she were home now, she wouldn’t be able to see China across the river, because of the new barriers.
That’s the end of the video. If you see errors or omissions, please comment below. I’ll make changes ASAP.
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