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North Korean Defector Hopes To See Loved Ones Again — But Remains Skeptical

Photo caption:

Photo by Zach Gibson-Pool Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Hyeonseo Lee (far left) and other North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 2, 2018.


According to recent polls, people in South Korea are optimistic following last week's historic summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Hyeonseo Lee, author of The Girl With Seven Names, isn't one of them. She secretly fled North Korea at age 17 and now, at 38 years old, lives in Seoul — one of thousands of North Korean defectors living in the South.

Lee spent a decade in China, hiding and living under assumed names, before crossing into South Korea. She says she's both surprised and skeptical about the summit between South and North Korea.

"[It] seems like many people in Korea right now at this moment have some sort of delusion about this meeting," she says. "Like 'Oh, we're going to have unification and then going to have big changes.' "

Interview Highlights

On why Lee's doubtful about negotiations with Kim Jong Un

We shouldn't forget this guy is not a normal guy. It's a guy who killed his own uncle, and his half-brother in exile. And he killed so many innocent people in North Korea through the public executions, and through the political prison camp. But since the one meeting, the people are just — not praising, but they were so impressed about his everything right now. That's why I'm so annoyed about that....

Because as a North Korean — every North Korean defector [that] living here believes that [the] North Korea will never, never going to do denuclearization....

This North Korea is not the regime made for, I think, America or either South Korea — it's made for [Kim Jong Un], to keep his regime, his power, to protect himself from even domestic political situations.

On what she hopes for

My greatest hope for this is of course, the unification between two countries. That is not only my hope, [but] the hope of 25 million North Korean people who are living — I mean, suffering, inside virtual prison in North Korea. And you know, more than 200,000 defectors are hiding in China currently. So this is everyone's hope right now for us. Just please, my hope is we keep peace in my home country, so that we can see our loved family members and friends — everyone there. ...

I do really have a hope that I will see the unification, and I will step on the border on North Korea, and I will look at China in my lifetime. I'm not sure when, but certainly I believe it can happen in my lifetime. ...

I helped my family cross the border seven years ago from North Korea, and we all [have] found freedom right now. But my mom, she's right now 60-something, and I really hope it happens in her lifetime, because she lost her close seven brothers and sisters, and she's the one who's really crying every night. It's really hurting for me to see her. And then, I can give her everything, but I can't help this one — the unification — that's what really hurts me.

On what she'd say if she could send a postcard to those in North Korea

I wanna say, simply, I missed you so much. I missed you every night and cried almost every day for you. And thank you so much that you survived through the famine and that you see the bright future, right now, on the Korean Peninsula. And that we all can meet the real freedom that you deserve.

Monika Evstatieva and Jessica Deahl produced and edited the audio story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


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