Q: Can you tell me your name? Tell me about where you are from?
A: My name is Hyun Seung Lee. I was born and raised in North Korea, where I spent the first 30 years of my life. While living in North Korea, I graduated from a high school that specialized in teaching foreign languages. I majored in English. Upon graduating, I served in the North Korean military for three years and three months.
I served on the West Coast of North Korea. Our job was countering the South Korean Navy. Later, I joined the general State Department. This specialized force focuses on teaching North Korean soldiers martial arts.
After I was discharged from the military, I went to Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, which also teaches foreign languages. I studied for three months. Later I was lucky to move to China to learn different subjects. I moved to China and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Finance and Economics. I went to work for a North Korean state-owned company doing business with Chinese business people.
Q: What was it like growing up in North Korea?
My living condition was relatively good compared to other people. I was raised in Pyongyang city the capital of North Korea. My dad served in two high-ranking posts appointed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong un’s father. So I haven’t experienced hunger, but I know a lot of people are starving. During my military service, I visited different housing for the general public. I realized most people live miserable lives.
Q: Let’s talk about what made you decide to leave North Korea. Can you walk us through the day you left?
A: I did business from 2011 to 2014. I was a member of North Korean worker’s party.
I would say I was loyal to the regime and the country. My dad always served. He was a special advisor to the worker’s party to introduce the North Korean economy to international corporations. The current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un began killing his uncle and all of his associates in late 2013.
Those people wanted to open the country and were killed because of it. Many of them are my dad’s friends, and some were my colleagues. An agent executed my sister’s roommate in front of us. This surprised us. We were shocked. Later, this turned into anger and resentment.
My family discussed the situation.
In 2014 the executions continued. My dad and I visited Pyongyang in September 2014. We saw soldiers being executed and friends getting sent to prison camps. We concluded that we could not serve Kim Jun Un. We went back to China and decided to defect.
We left China on October 5th, 2014. It was a quick process but very tense. Chinese authorities were monitoring us, as were North Korean agents. We were lucky to get some help from the South Korean government. I can not go into further details on the routes because I want them to remain open to other people.
Q: Are these executions taking place in public as a way to send a message to the population?
A: Yeah, that’s the difference between Kim Jong-un and his father, Kim Jong Il. So Kim Jong Il also killed lots of people, but he didn’t do that in public. Kim Jong-un has different views on executions. He wants to instill fear. This planted seeds of hate and rebellion in people’s minds. They see their colleagues or their friends were being executed. They think Kim Jong-un is not a human. Most of the executions take place in the Military Academy.
They bring the people who are to be executed into the academy grounds, and the students have to watch it. Two officers who witnessed the executions came to my dad and me and shared their feelings and what happened. Two men were tied to tables. They read the charges against them and shot.
They were not using small arms. They used anti-aircraft guns. These are massive weapons. Their entire bodies were destroyed. Whatever was left of them they burned using flame throwers. They turn to the crowd and shout, “these people are traitors and do not deserve to be buried in our sacred grounds .”
They told me they couldn’t eat for three days. We were shocked. It’s not just one or two people. They executed 500 people that day.
Q: That is very gruesome. Is it true that in North Korea, people live in fear because there is a system of rewarding anyone who turns people in that talk negatively about the government?
A: That is true. If you have family or friends you can trust, yes, you can share how you feel. During the discussion with the officers’ who witnessed the executions, they didn’t say if they thought the executions were good or bad. Still, you can see the fear and anger in their eyes.
North Korea is a country with corrupted officials. The most corrupt is, of course, Kim Jun Un. People talk with their eyes, not their voices. You cannot go against Kim Jong Un.
Q: Let’s talk about your time in the military.
A: Yes. I was in the infantry. I was stationed on the west coast of North Korea. We had general training, but due to the lack of food and equipment, most North Korean soldiers spend the majority of their time farming and securing food for themselves. I would say 70 percent of North Korean soldiers are malnourished. This is why the regime allows soldiers to spend more time farming.
When you wake up in the morning, you have to spend two hours studying the regime’s policy, The Kim family’s history, and essentially worship them. Typically, a soldier is constantly training. In North Korea, time that should be spent on training is spent farming. I would say the North Korean military is not well trained. This is why Kim Jun Un is focused on nuclear weapons.
Q: That is most of the infantry. Are the North Korean Special Forces different in terms of food, funding, and training?
A: I would say it is not much different. They are provided more food than ordinary soldiers.
Q: After you escaped from North Korea did you come straight to the United States? How do you find living in America?
A: I went to South Korea. I lived there for a year before moving to the United States. I find living in the United States to be very nice. Slightly boring. I enjoy the freedom. When I was living in South Korea, officials told me not to tell people that I am a North Korean defector. When I asked why they told me because I would experience discrimination.
Q: Let’s talk about what you are doing now in America.
A: I completed an internship with the Foundation For Defense of Democracies. I give advice to think tanks and NGOs about North Korean issues, including sanctions, the North Korean military, and getting information into North Korea.
Q: What was your perception of the world before you went to study in China?
A: Before I went to China, I had zero information on the outside world. Most of the North Korean general public has zero knowledge of South Korea or the United States. They believe that the rest of the world lives in a similar system as North Korea. I only watched some music videos, Hollywood movies, and some South Korean dramas.
I had access to the Internet when I was in China. I was able to read South Korean newspapers. My thoughts gradually changed after visiting China. Only privileged people are selected to represent North Korea and go into China.