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‘I Was Shocked By Freedom’: Defectors Reflect On Life In North Korea

Lee So-yeon, a North Korean defector, used to be a vigilance corpsman in North Korea’s army.

Lauren Frayer/NPR


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Lee So-yeon, a North Korean defector, used to be a vigilance corpsman in North Korea’s army.

Lauren Frayer/NPR

Watching footage of April’s troops parades in North Korea — with soldiers marching in arrangement to nationalistic tunes — Lee So-yeon recalls all a steps. She was once one of those soldiers.

The daughter of a university professor, Lee, now 41, grew adult in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province. But when fast ravaged a nation in a 1990s, women — including Lee — volunteered for a troops in droves, mostly for a food rations.

Since 2014, North Korean women have been drafted for 7 years of imperative troops service. Men offer 10 to 12 years. For any gender, those are a longest investiture terms in a world.

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Lee assimilated a North Korean army in 1992 and served scarcely 10 years, mostly in a table pursuit with a vigilance corps. But on holidays, she had to march.

“All of us soldiers had to march,” she recalls in an pronounce inside a glass-and-steel skyscraper in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. “It one us, and showed off a strength to a outward world.”

In a military, Lee says, she witnessed passionate abuse and assault opposite womanlike soldiers. She attempted to forsake though was detained and tortured. Finally, in 2008, she managed to hide opposite a Tumen River to China.

“I was repelled by leisure — that we didn’t need accede to do anything!” Lee recalls. “I couldn’t trust there was prohibited water, hair dryers! we could opinion for whomever we wanted. And all a food!”

Lee has given turn an disciple for womanlike defectors as conduct of a New Korea Women’s Union, formed in western Seoul. But from her time in a military, she is means to offer discernment into what a North Korean supervision wants a possess people to know — and what it’s like to be inside one of a many sly regimes in a universe during times of heightened tragedy with a West.

When she was a soldier, state TV bloody nonstop in her office, she says.

“There’s a TV in each army barracks. When there was a chief test, state TV told us to feel proud, so we did,” Lee says. “Even when there were assent talks between North and South Korea, state TV told us it was a ploy by a South to take over a country.”

The media in North Korea do not merely news information. Instead, they’re a apparatus for a regime to stir emotion, generally when it feels threatened — as it does now, says Jeon Young-sun, a highbrow of North Korea studies in Seoul.

Lee Hyeonseo, who defected from North Korea, is a author of a memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, about her escape.

Lauren Frayer/NPR


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Lauren Frayer/NPR

Lee Hyeonseo, who defected from North Korea, is a author of a memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, about her escape.

Lauren Frayer/NPR

“Outside vigour on North Korea — sanctions or threats of conflict — indeed assistance a regime win domestic support,” Jeon says. “North Korea is as always on a defensive, and fear rallies people around their Dear Leader.”

It’s not usually soldiers. Defector Lee Hyeonseo was a high propagandize tyro in 1994, when a Clinton administration came tighten to a pre-emptive troops strike on North Korea’s chief facilities. Her propagandize finished classes and sent a students out digging trenches for months.

“We were so frightened during a time. We unequivocally suspicion we were going to have a war,” says Lee, 36. (She is not associated to Lee So-yeon, with whom she shares a surname.) “And then, we were proud. Somehow, we believed we were going to win that war, since a dear leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they were higher gods who can make all happen.”

Lee wrote a 2015 discourse of her shun from North Korea, The Girl With Seven Names, about how she used feign identities to shun opposite China and, finally, years later, to Seoul. She also helped move her mom and hermit to reserve in Seoul.

The family still talks spasmodic to kin inside North Korea, who live tighten adequate to China to collect adult a Chinese cellphone network. But authorities are enormous down, Lee says. She recently spoke with her aunt, seeking what it feels like inside North Korea now, after President Trump warned of “major, vital conflict” with Pyongyang. But they’re incompetent to pronounce on a phone in certainty and can’t pronounce for unequivocally long. Lee couldn’t get a genuine answer from her aunt.

“It’s really, unequivocally formidable right now. After usually one minute, a GPS reveals [to North Korean authorities] where a phone call is holding place,” Lee explains. “People are super scared.”

Many defectors, carrying been unprotected to North Korean promotion for so long, can't leave it behind.

At one indicate during NPR’s pronounce with Lee So-yeon, a former North Korean soldier, she began to sing — an aged army song, about apropos a bullet for a Dear Leader.

Lee laughs and says she realizes how bizarre it is to sing a North Korean promotion strain in Seoul, a collateral of what a song’s lyrics call a “puppet regime.”

“But we was brainwashed,” she says. “And that’s what’s scary.”

Jihye Lee contributed to this story.