Fri, Nov 04, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Lottery of misery: Bleak choices for N Korean women


North Korean defector and activist Lee Hyeon-seo poses for a photograph as she publicizes her book The Girl with Seven Names in Beijing on March 26.

Photo: AFP

Stay and endure a life of privation and oppression or escape and risk being sold into sexual slavery: That is the stark choice facing many women in North Korean, bestselling author and activist Lee Hyeon-seo warned.

The daughter of a military official, she is not your typical defector — it was curiosity not desperation that pushed her to venture beyond North Korea’s borders.

Almost 20 years on, she has become a powerful voice of dissent, laying bare the reality of life under the totalitarian regime in her memoir The Girl with Seven Names.

Now she is campaigning for greater protection for North Koreans who manage to flee — particularly women — warning that many are captured in China and sold into prostitution or end up in forced marriages.

“All but the lucky few will live the rest of their lives in utter misery,” she said. “They will be repeatedly raped day in and day out by an endless supply of customers who enrich their captors at their expense.”

Horrified by “survivor testimony,” she is launching a new non-governmental organization, North Star NK, which has agents in the field across Southeast Asia and China helping those trafficked in the sex trade to escape.

“They are so humiliated and broken, they don’t want to speak out, so I decided I should try to help,” Lee said.

The Tumen and Yalu rivers act as a border with China. In some parts the water is navigable, while in winter they are frozen over completely.

For many, the physical act of crossing is the easiest bit. There is no asylum once they reach the other side, they are regarded as illegal immigrants, and face deportation if caught and then severe punishment in North Korea.

The women are in an incredibly vulnerable position, Lee said. They have little choice but to trust the brokers smuggling them out, but there is no one to turn to if things go wrong.

Lee herself narrowly avoided being forced into the sex trade when she crossed into China. She was told she was being trained to work in a hair salon, but on arrival she discovered it was a brothel and managed to run away.

Her own story is one of remarkable survival against the odds. From public executions and corpses lying on the streets to family gatherings and playing with friends, Lee’s memories of her childhood are a patchwork of the ordinary and the horrifying — and yet, she said, it was all normal in North Korea.

“The sad truth for most North Koreans is that they are brainwashed to think that their complete lack of freedom and human rights is normal,” she said.

For her the coil of indoctrination unraveled gradually. She grew up on the border — the neon lights of China visible just across the Yalu River.

“My country was completely dark, even though we were supposedly superior,” she said. “Living so close to China also allowed me to secretly watch Chinese TV channels, which opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

A nationwide famine, known as the “Arduous March,” also forced her to reconsider the rhetoric of the regime.

“In my hometown of Hyesan I could see dead bodies on the streets. The smell of decomposing flesh made me feel sick and gave me goosebumps,” she said.

It is estimated hundreds of thousands died.

Lee was just 17 when she illegally crossed the river into China, planning on just a short visit. Instead, she ended up on a decade-long odyssey, during which she assumed multiple identities, evaded state crackdowns on North Koreans, and endured betrayals and beatings.

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