Can we live with peace and love in our hearts no matter what? Hyeonseo Lee’s powerful story is proof that no matter the hardships that may be thrown our way, it is always possible to awaken to the light within ourselves and the world.
Now working in service of the greater whole, Hyeonseo shares the insights she gained through her personal transformation.
It is a frosty evening in the middle of winter when a teenage girl approaches the ominous river dividing North Korea from China. Slip-on shoes barely cover her feet from the icy cold. She has lived near the border long enough to know the fate that finds many who try to cross–yet, as she comes to the river’s frozen edge, she barely pauses on the thought.
Tonight, the patrolling guard’s back is turned as she makes the life-changing step onto the ice. Little does she know that she may never return to her home country, that it will be 14 long years before she will see her family again, or that, despite already being subjected to experiences no child should know of, her strength is about to be tested far more than it ever has been in North Korea.
In the years that follow this night, Hyeonseo Lee will narrowly escape being held captive in brothels, an arranged marriage, prison, and informers. She will discover her deepest beliefs are founded on lies, she will face isolation and heartache. But behind all of that, she will learn the true nature of humanity. She will learn the innate kindness that is within us all, even in the most difficult of times. And she will learn that the only true borders are the ones we build ourselves.
Even today, she risks her life when she tells her story. But, Hyeonseo has stepped past her fear. She knows her message must be heard. “Through the difficulties I have faced, the disasters, I have become very strong over time,” she says. “I got a lot of early lessons, wisdom, and strength–I see this as a gift.”
Here are some of the potent insights Hyeonseo, a North Korean defector since the age of 17, has learned about humanity.
You Can Give Someone the Gift of Peace and Trust
Have you ever walked past someone who looks like they are having a bad day and wondered if you could help? Hyeonseo says a dark time in her life was turned around forever when she was approached by a man in a cafe. The unexpected help of an Australian stranger–a man who never asked for anything in return and could have easily ignored her–allowed Hyeonseo to free her family from being held prisoners in inhuman circumstances. But his kindness did so much more. As he reached out his hand to her, he completely altered her mindset from one of fear and mistrust, to one where she saw the world as a truly incredible place.
“Dick’s help was the biggest help of my life,” she explains. “These days, I’m always looking at the sky. In the past when I saw the sky, I never felt anything. I didn’t even try to look at the sky. There was no space in my mind to think about nature or air. But when Dick helped, the first thing I did was look at the sky and was thinking ‘the sky is so blue’.”
With Dick’s help I realised, good people do exist. Not just in movies. They are walking the streets with us. That was a really huge realisation. It made me accept the world itself–not in a distorted way–but just as its beautiful self. He gave me the gift of trust and peace. This was a new experience for me in my life. He made me realise, this world is too beautiful to leave.
Kindness is Innate
There have long been discussions around what truly makes us human, but Hyeonseo believes the answer is kindness. While Dick’s assistance was an incredible gift to her, the help of an array of other friends and strangers alike also ensured she remained safe during her journey. This ranged from the armed guard who let her cross the border, to the elderly man who ensured she reached the home of her distant relatives, and a bus full of people who kept her and her family’s true identity secret from the authorities.
She learned of “another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so, and where callousness was unusual, not the norm.”
Hyeonseo believes that no matter what, kindness is within us. “Being human is about lending a helping hand to others. That is humanity,” she says. “If we were selfish, I don’t think we would have a world as beautiful as we do today. I know this world has evil as well, but there is good in all of us.”
“I used to only know the dark side of the world, but now I see that humanity is truly beautiful.”
“To keep making this world a beautiful place, a helping hand is really important. For someone in a difficult situation, a little sliver of kindness can make a whole lot of difference.”
Unity is Closer Than We Think
Growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo was taught separation from a tender age. Separation from her peers, her neighbors and from other nationalities. As a child, she learned the Japanese, South Koreans, and Americans, among others, were all enemies. Despite this, she now sees the world, and everyone in it, as a whole.
“I have lived in North Korea, South Korea, China, and America. When people ask me my identity, I say ‘this whole world is my home’,” she explains, adding that she still has hope the two sides of Korea will one day reunite in peace.
“I really hope for unification. Even though we have been divided for a long time, [we are all the same], so we should live together in a united Korea.”
“When I was growing up in North Korea, the regime told us that we have a huge barrier between North Korea and South Korea. A real concrete barrier. I was thinking it would be bigger than the Berlin Wall. Then I went there and found out the barrier is only 20cm high.”
Barriers are only in our heads, she says, and while unification always seems far away, it could be closer than we think.
“The next step is to identify with humanity, as a global citizen.”
The Power of Breaking Down the Barriers Within Yourself
Not only has Hyeonseo broken down the barriers between herself and the rest of the world, but also the barriers within herself. As a child, she learned to be incredibly discreet and cautious about what she said and did, and to be very wary of others. “Already [as a young child] I was acquiring the mask that the adults wore from long practice”, she says.
Once Hyeonseo defected to China, instead of feeling free, she closed herself off even more for safety–the consequences of being found out as a defector and being sent back to North Korea were dire. However, being a closed book, even to herself, took a toll on her identity and mental health. “I was…hiding beneath so many lies that I hardly knew who I was anymore. I was becoming a non-person.”
Gradually though, she broke down the barriers that had been ingrained in her, as she opened up to others and herself. Even though she came from an environment that was designed to keep her down and second-guessing, she has thrived. Now an international author and speaker, Hyeonseo is building an organization to help other North Korean refugees connect with the international community.
“This is very personal for me…but I do have trust in myself now. I don’t know where this thought came from.”
“Even when people say ‘you can’t do that, you will never make it happen’, I think ‘No, I can make it happen’. I have a feeling that I can make anything happen, no matter what, I can get there. I have trust in myself.”
Remain Hopeful, No Matter the Circumstances
Before she gained trust in herself though, she relied on hope and trust in the unknown. Hyeonseo says this still plays a major role in her life.
“Many people ask me, ‘how did you have the courage to keep going? Most people would have given up, how did this little girl have the courage to do it?’ And the answer is hope. Hope to see the outside world. Hope to survive. Hope for my family. I knew if I gave up, I would never see my family again. I don’t lose my hope. I believe I can make it happen.”
“Now I have hope for unity. Hope that the world can do something for North Koreans. Having hope is really, really important.”
Spend Everyday Practicing Love
What is family? Some consider it to be blood relatives, but it can be so much more. As a global community, we are one family; deeply connected by our ability to love, even in the direst of circumstances.
Though her journey has been arduous, Hyeonseo has kept her heart alive and has never forgotten the value of love. Coming back to her heart in each moment is perhaps the lesson that is most potent to her.
“When I was living with my family, I thought it would last forever, but when I lost all of them, I realised nothing lasts forever. I shouldn’t have been thinking about the future, but living in that moment and enjoying it,” she says. “When I lost everything, I realised I made a big mistake. Now I try to appreciate every moment.”
We can do without almost anything–our home, even our country. But we will never do without other people, and we will never do without family.
Hyeonseo’s autobiography, ‘The Girl With Seven Names’, has been published in 40 countries. She now travels the world, spreading her message in the hope of one day having a world where North Koreans are free, and the world truly lives as one family.