Hyeonseo Lee: My Escape from North Korea

Hyeonseo Lee

Wilkine Brutus finds parts of himself and his own mother’s story in this riveting video by North Korean activist Hyeonseo Lee.

Hyeonseo Lee gave a remarkable TEDtalk speech about her North Korean background, her escape from North Korea, and life as a refugee.

I live in South Korea and made the connection with my own mother, a Haitian refugee in the early 80’s. Assimilating into American culture was quite difficult for my mother as well.  The video is a quick insight into how stories of triumph resonate thousands of miles apart. It’s a human story of love, strength and bravery. Below is the comment I left on the TED site. May it add additional context to Hyeonseo Lee’s incredible story.

First of all, what a remarkable story! Great presentation! She also didn’t focus the story completely on her, but on the plight of her people and gave thanks to “strangers” for their love and support. It’s ironic, however, that we (most in the media and the uninformed demographic of outsiders) see her country as just that…strangers in a strange place in time.

As a Haitian-American teaching English in South Korea, I can understand the duality of identity. My mother was a refugee from Haiti back in the early 80′s. There is a mixed feeling toward nationalistic pride and the perception of the international community. Politics should never render our humility toward the next human as non-existent.

This dichotomy continues to exist and we keep landing on the same conclusion: humanity will only survive if we allow “strangers” to survive. In other words, if we shy away from the prevailing narrative of North Korea as simply a rogue nation or a strange place stuck in the past, then we can finally see it as a country of humans living in unfortunate, dire circumstances.

We need more empathy toward the North Korean people and more stories about their human plight. There is also a sense of disillusionment in South Korea. No one wants to go to war, especially with their own brothers and sisters. It does, however, feel like a completely different country.

From my perspective, a large amount of South Koreans are afraid of reunification for obvious socio-economic reasons.

Genevieve Tran, a recent commenter on here, wrote, “no one works harder than a refugee given another chance at life.”

I agree wholeheartedly. My mother arrived to America by boat, almost 30 years later, she visited me in South Korea by plane.

Ah, the gift of opportunity!

Everyone in here commenting or simply viewing the video is slowly reshaping the narrative. Share this video. Bring a different angle to the discussion about North Korea. It’s certainly needed.

About Wilkine Brutus

Wilkine Brutus is the editor-in-chief of The Vanguard Element, a website featuring social commentary, thought-provoking content, and short films. He is a Haitian-American poet working on a cross-genre book exploring the human condition. He is also an English teacher in South Korea and vlogs at Talk & Travel. Follow him on Twitter: @wilkinebrutus

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