As a schoolgirl in North Korea, Lee Hyeon-seo was forced to watch executions, denounce her friends for fabricated transgressions and dig tunnels in case of a nuclear attack.
But Lee and her classmates grew up convinced they lived in the “greatest nation on earth” run by a benevolent god-like leader whom they loved in the way many children love Santa Claus.
It wasn’t until she left North Korea at the age of 17 that she began to discover the full horror of the government that had fed her propaganda since birth.
In a memoir published in London last Thursday, Lee gives a rare insight into the bizarre and brutal reality of daily life in the world’s most secretive state.
“Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe,” she writes in The Girl With Seven Names. “Nearly 70 years after its creation it remains as closed and as cruel as ever.”
Lee, now a human rights campaigner living in South Korea, grew up in Hyesan next to the Chinese border. She had a close family with an array of colorful relatives including “Uncle Opium” who smuggled North Korean heroin into China.
All family life took place beneath the obligatory portraits of North Korea’s revered founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il which hung in every home. Failure to clean and look after them was a punishable offense.
At supper Lee had to thank “Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung” for her food before she could pick up her chopsticks.
Her family were well regarded and her father’s job in the military meant they were not short of food. But brutality and fear were everywhere.
The faintest hint of political disloyalty was enough to make an entire family — grandparents, parents and children — disappear. “Their house would be roped off; they’d be taken away in a truck at night, and not seen again,” she says.
As Lee entered her teens her world was turned upside down when her father was arrested by the secret police. He was later released into a hospital. He had been badly beaten and died soon after. The circumstances remain unclear.
Lee says one of the tragedies is that everyone wears a mask, which they let slip at their peril.
“Kindness towards strangers is rare in North Korea. There is a risk to helping others,” she writes. “The state made accusers and informers of us all.”
Public executions were used as a way to keep everyone in line.
Lee witnessed her first execution at seven. After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 she recalls a spate of executions of people who had not mourned sufficiently.
FAMINE KILLS ONE MILLION
In the mid-1990s North Korea suffered a famine which killed an estimated one million people.
Lee’s first inkling of the crisis came when her mother showed her a letter from a colleague’s sister living in a neighboring province.
“By the time you read this the five of us will no longer exist in this world,” it read, explaining that the family were lying on the floor waiting to die after not eating for weeks.
Lee, who still believed she lived in the world’s most prosperous country, was stunned. A few days later she came across a skeletal young mother lying in the street with a baby in her arms. She was close to death, but no one stopped.
Beggars and vagrant children began to appear in the town and corpses turned up in the river. “The smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere,” Lee said, speaking at a book launch at Asia House in London.