Why one young lady escaped from North Korea

On May 12, 2017, Yong-mee Lee was invited to Tokyo University to present a speech to the students.

Yong-mee Lee is one of the North Korean refugees whom LFNKR (Life Funds for North Korean Refugees) has helped to safely reach Japan and resettle here.  We are very happy to see the growing number of resettled North Korean refugees now helping LFNKR. They are actively participating in our activities to raise awareness of the difficulties still faced by the North Korean people.  The following speech was presented by Yong-mee Lee.

I am Yong-mee Lee, and I am in my thirties.  About five years ago, in 2012, I escaped from North Korea and made it to Japan.

First, I would like to briefly introduce myself.

I was born in Hyesan, Ryanggang-do, a border city in North Korea.  My parents are ethnic Koreans, that is, Koreans who were born in Japan.  They moved to North Korea in the 1960’s, believing in the “Paradise on Earth” propaganda launched by Chongryon.  They married in North Korea.

I graduated from an academic college and became a teacher.  After working at an elementary school for six years. Then, about three years before I escaped from North Korea, I quit my teaching job and started a business in the black market.

I left my country in March 2012, and after five months of difficulties, finally reached Japan in August 2012 with the help of LFNKR.

I studied hard to learn the Japanese language by attending night classes at junior high schools and taking a high school correspondence course, which earned me a high school equivalency diploma.  And now, I am studying at a medical vocational college.

Here is why I had to decide to escape my country and undertake the hazardous journey to Japan.

It was in about 2000 when I decided to escape from North Korea.  I was often the target of discrimination, even from my early childhood, because my parents were returnees from Japan.  People from Japan and their family members are considered untrustworthy, and it is extremely difficult to acquire any high positions in the Labor Party, the Police department or the military.

There were about 90,000 ethnic Koreans who had moved from Japan during the 1960’s and 1970’s. About 1,800 of these were Japanese wives who had accompanied their ethnic Korean husbands.

Back then, in North Korea, a new State Security Department, which is equivalent to Secret Police, was established to safeguard the honor and safety of Kim il-Sung.  The government ordered every local State Security Department to closely monitor the returnees from Japan, saying that one out of every 100 returnees was a spy.

There was a quota. The person in charge of every State Security Department was expected to catch, for example, 30 returnee spies each month, and if they should fail to arrest 30, they were punished.  You can easily imagine how desperate they were to fulfill their assigned quota.

I was once told by an acquaintance that one returnee while out drinking with his friends commented, “I am having a hard time adapting myself to the life here.  I wish I could go back to Japan.” He was arrested soon after that.

In another case, a returnee was at a soccer game and it started to rain.  He was holding a North Korea national flag in his hand and he sat on it.  He was arrested for this act because it was considered behavior insulting to North Korea.

There were a lot of young people in their 20’s just like you, and many of them had been students at high schools and universities in Japan, where they were born.  They left Japan with the simple desire to restart their lives in “the paradise on earth” where they would not be discriminated against as Koreans.  What they discovered in North Korea, however, was a life of poverty and repressive monitoring.

The returnees from Japan were experiencing painful lives, and so they often got together to drink and sing the popular Japanese songs they used to hear in Japan.  Quite a few of them were arrested for singing those songs.

If returnees were arrested as economic criminals, they are treated as spies or traitors.  Most arrestees are tortured severely by the authorities until they finally give up and “confess.” Then they are sent to political prison camps, even though they are innocent.  I have known of only one person who was able to withstand the interrogation. He never yielded, never confessed, throughout three entire months of intense questioning.  That person was finally released, but then, after all that, committed suicide, jumping from the rooftop of a tall building.

The prisoners at the labor camps are treated so badly that many of them die from disease within a year of their incarceration.  I have witnessed many Japanese wives and their children who lived terrible lives after their husbands, their fathers, were imprisoned.  Every returnee from Japan has regretted moving to North Korea.

After Kim il-Sung died in 1994 and the so-called “Arduous March” began, our lives became even more difficult.

I have experienced all three of the North Korean leaders, Kim il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un.  Until about 1990, the government paid salaries and supplied food and other goods, including rice.  Back then, I was a young teenager and I remember that the government supplied my school uniforms and school bags.  North Korea is a country of socialism with policies of free education and free medical treatment.

However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea lost economic aid from the USSR.  This was a catastrophic blow to the economy of North Korea, and that is when “the Arduous March” began.  At this time, Kim Jong-il was the leader of the country, but he failed to take any measures to improve conditions.  We received neither rice nor salaries, even when we worked, so many people starved to death.  Back then, I was a college student and we were lucky to receive financial support from our relatives in Japan.  So, our family members did not starve, but I saw many of my neighbors die from malnutrition.  Some of my classmates at our dormitory suffered from malnutrition and had to drop out of college.

Only one thing occupied our minds, “how can we survive this crisis?” More and more people quit going to work and started doing business in the black market.  When I graduated from college, we received a small salary, although I got no rice.   The amount of my salary was enough to buy food for only a few days.  To survive, I had no choice but start doing business on the black market.  However, about 80% of the population were doing the same thing, doing business in black markets, so the competition was severe with very low profits.  But still, people had to do that as they desperately scrambled to survive.  I used to go to the black market to earn whatever I could after working at the school, because I would be arrested if I skipped my school job.  Actually, quite a few people were arrested because they stopped reporting to their work places.

North Korea is a country where common sense has no meaning.

There is no freedom of speech.  One word criticizing the government could be enough reason to land you in jail.  And there is no freedom of movement.  If you wish to leave your home for a few days to go somewhere, you have to apply for permission not only from your workplace but also from the local mayor and police before you can get a pass permit.  And of course, when traveling you have to go through many checkpoints.

There are no human rights.  In North Korea, there are elections, but we are all required to go and vote – to always cast approving votes.  Every voter is under strict surveillance at every voting place, and if you should fail to cast an approving vote, then you will be arrested and sent to a political prison camp.

In 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi visited North Korea to bring several Japanese abductees to Japan.  At this time, there was strong disagreement between Kim Jong-il and the Japanese government.  This seriously angered Kim Jong-il, and he ordered the confiscation and destruction of every Japanese car in Pyongyang.  The North Korean government paid no compensation for those personally owned cars.

In 2010, Kim Jong-il paid inspection visits to Hamhung and Chongjin.  At that time, he commented that the towns are too dark at night and ordered installation of street lamps.  The mayors in those towns forcibly collected money to install the illumination.  In North Korea, general households were allowed to use electricity for only about five hours a day because of the shortage.  So, while the lights were are on in the towns, the people living in those towns were eating dinner by candlelight.

You can see the North Korean government’s indifference to people’s lives.

In 2008, the North Korean government enacted a monetary reform.  The purpose of the reform was to confiscate money from individuals.  There were many people successfully earning good money in the black markets.  Those people who worked hard in the black markets, earning money and saving it over a period of years, were thrown into deep despair when their savings were seized, and quite a few killed themselves.

The monetary reform caused a shutdown of the black markets for three months, and many people who had depended on black market income starved to death.  That reform intensified the frustration and distrust they felt toward the government.  The social turmoil was so severe that Kim Jong-un decided to blame and execute one of the top members of the Labor Party, even though the reform was enforced by Kim Jong-un himself.

North Korea is a country where you just cannot hope for anything in the future however hard you try.  At last, I came to realize that the country is hopeless, and that is why I decided to risk my life to escape and come to Japan.