In 1999, Lee HanByeol was only 16 years old when she planned her defection. Her mother was on the verge of being falsely accused of gun theft by the North Korean regime and was potentially facing execution. It was a rainy season during her dash to the Chinese border, which worsened an already perilous journey. She had to wade through the water almost reaching her neck.
“I would not have been able togoinifIknewthewaterwas that deep,” Lee said. “I did not know how to swim, so it was only because it was dark at night, around 3 a.m., that I could jump in.”
In the hasty rush for escape, Lee had no time to tell her brother, who was in the North Korean military at the moment. A few weeks later, she arrived in the Chinese city of Dalian and was forced to hide her identity and origin. For years she lived in fear of apprehension until 2003 when she boarded a ship bound for Incheon in South Korea.
Her mother, who was unable to accompany her, stayed in china. Lee later found that her mother was arrested, deported back to North Korea, and condemned to a labor camp.
Lee’s mother managed to escape again but had lost her hearing and had a spinal disk disorder from torture by the authorities. Lee’s brother, however, was sent to a concentration camp. She still wonders whether her brother is alive.
Lee, now 38 years old, has established her own small organization, Improving North Korean Human Rights Center, to help find and rescue people like her brother. She publicizes human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime and offers counseling services to help defectors adjust to life in South Korea.
Ever since Lee established the center, she endeavored to save her brother. She was disheartened when the answer, which she waited for two years only to know whether her brother is alive, returned from North Korea, was “We can’t answer to such requests.” However, she did not give up.
“Now we are preparing documents to officially request the United Nations to ask, not the North Korean government,” Lee said. “Also, we are conducting extensive research on human rights violations in North Korea and delivering it to the United Nations and other international organizations.”
Lee follows a stern belief that with knowledge comes action. She says that the more the international community knows, positive change will follow.
Lee also runs emergency rescue projects aiming to help North Korean defectors safely arrive in South Korea. As Lee’s experience tells, this is a journey that is fraught with dangers the entire way. It can quite literally be a matter of life and death.
Like herself, Lee hopes that more defectors can join her in South Korea to escape the dangers and human rights violations in North Korea. However, adjusting to live in South Korea can be challenging for many arrivals, as lifestyles, society, and culture, in general, is vastly different.
Therefore, Lee offers counseling to newly-arrived defectors in the hopes of helping them adapt to their new surroundings through her center.
“Among North Korean defectors, young people in their adolescence, 20s, and 30s say English is the most difficult,” Lee said. “They cannot keep up with school classes as English jargon is frequently used. Even in their daily lives, they have difficulty adjusting to South Korean society as English usage is so prevalent in the country.”
Lee established The Great Hopes School, which works with volunteers to teach English to North Korean defectors to counter the problem faced by younger generations coming to South Korea. However, Lee emphasizes that she cannot do this alone and hopes that more volunteers will help her.
“I think we can achieve great things when everyone’s small powers come together,” Lee said. “I hope many university students, the readers of Ewha Voice as well, will apply to volunteer to teach English at The Great Hopes School in hopes of reunification and to gather power.”