North Korean Defector On Human Rights NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with author Sungju Lee, who defected from North Korea, about the current discussion of human rights in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

North Korean Defector On Human Rights

North Korean Defector On Human Rights

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NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with author Sungju Lee, who defected from North Korea, about the current discussion of human rights in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.


Just how harsh is the regime of North Korea? There hadn't been much debate about a family-run dictatorship that isolates and starves its people - hadn't been until this week. President Trump offered a somewhat different perspective after meeting North Korea's Kim Jong Un. He said Kim loves his people - that he's tough, but he has to be, that he showed his skill by inheriting the dictators job from his father and that he's done bad things, but so have lots of people. Press Secretary Sara Sanders defended that last statement.


SARAH SANDERS: That's a factual statement. A lot of people have done some bad things. However, the president hasn't ignored the bad things that have been done by the North Korean regime. He's directly called it out on a number of occasions.

INSKEEP: Sanders also defended a gesture by the president, who was shown in North Korean propaganda videos saluting a North Korean general. So what's it like to live in Kim Jong Un's North Korea? Author Sungju Lee was born there. He spent his early years in Pyongyang until his family was thrown out.

SUNGJU LEE: My father made a political mistake - saying there is no hope in North Korea. So my entire family was expelled to a different city, which is called Gyeong-seong. And it's kind of really countryside.

INSKEEP: Sungju Lee is out of North Korea now. He works with a non-governmental organization to help others escape. And when he dropped by our studios, he recalled his years when he was forced to live outside the capital - scavenging for food and taking a school field trip.

LEE: One day, the principal gathers students - announcing we were going to a public execution site to watch a public execution.

INSKEEP: Watch a public execution?

LEE: Yes, yes. I was shocked.

INSKEEP: You had no idea this was going to be...

LEE: I had no idea.

INSKEEP: So you were taken.

LEE: Yes - entire school.

INSKEEP: What happened?

LEE: There were two criminals. First one - the man, he tried to steal copper from a factory and then smuggle the metal to China.


LEE: He was captured by police officer. He got nine bullets. There were three police officers. Each one shot three bullets. And the second one was female - lady. The police officer announced that she has a different belief. She must have only one God, only one belief, which is our leader. But she has different belief.

INSKEEP: Was the woman also shot nine times?

LEE: Yes, nine times - same.

INSKEEP: How did your family get out of there?

LEE: Well, actually when I was 12, my father left to China for food. But he didn't come back. So I thought my father passed away. Four months later, my mom left home for food - same reason. And then she is still missing. So I'm looking for her since then.

INSKEEP: Were you an only child?

LEE: Yeah, I'm only child in my family.

INSKEEP: So you're home alone?

LEE: Yeah, I'm home alone. So and then I had to survive by myself.

INSKEEP: In a strange town that you had just been moved to recently.

LEE: Yes, yes. There are two types of street kids - individual and groups. Individuals usually died during the winter because they were frozen to death. So that's why we gathered seven boys during the night. We went to train station to sleep over there. All of us had a prayer before we'd go to sleep. It was like this - well, we want to see more dead bodies next morning because in the morning usually there were two dead bodies. So a police officer come to train station, and then they called us. Hey, boys, come over here. You guys have to move these dead bodies to a certain point. And then if we move that dead bodies to certain point, we usually got corn bread from police officers.

INSKEEP: They would feed you.

LEE: So that's why you want to see more dead bodies in the morning.


LEE: So my dream was to have three meals per day. At that time, I was 12. When I was young, my dream was to become a sorcerer to protect my nation. But on the street, my dream had changed.

INSKEEP: So in what year did you finally leave North Korea?

LEE: My father, he managed to come to South Korea in 1999.


LEE: So and then he sent brokers to North Korea to find me.

INSKEEP: Sent brokers?

LEE: Yes, brokers. If you have money, you can bring North Koreans to South Korea. So my father spent 25,000 U.S. dollar to bring me to South Korea.

INSKEEP: So you had these excruciating experiences as a child. You got out because your father tracked you down and paid to have you smuggled out. You ended up in South Korea. You've studied. You've done OK. With that background, what have you thought about as the United States has reached out to North Korea and these talks - nuclear talks have at least begun?

LEE: Well, talk is good. It's much better than war, right? But I watched the summit. I really hoped the United States and South Korea include human rights issue when they have talk with North Korea.

INSKEEP: The president has said in a Fox News interview, when asked about human rights violations in North Korea, quote, "a lot of other people have," quote, "done some really bad things." You've had a chance to travel around a little bit now. Is North Korea about the same as a bunch of other places when it comes to human rights?

LEE: You know what? He can compare with other places. But I don't want to hear that kind of sentence because, I mean, truly different - North Korea has prison camps. Do you have prison camp in the United States?

INSKEEP: No. We have prisons, but...

LEE: Yeah, no prison camp...

INSKEEP: Political prisoners are not supposed to be political prisoners in the United States.

LEE: Exactly, no. So that's what he said. He should have compared with the United States. That's really kind of a sad sentence from him.

INSKEEP: President Trump came out of the meeting with Kim Jong Un and said, I believe Kim Jong Un loves his people.

LEE: Well, I heard that. But in my perspective, Kim Jong Un doesn't love his own people because - I mean, I just got married three weeks ago.

INSKEEP: Congratulations.

LEE: Thank you. Well, my wife, she speak to me that I don't like. But I have to listen to her - right? - because I love her. So I mean, if I were in North Korea - if I can say, oh, Kim Jong Un, you're wrong. You have to change this. Then Kim Jong Un, if he loved me, he would listen. But I will be persecuted, so which means that he doesn't love his people. He loves his power. His interest is maintaining his power forever.

INSKEEP: Sungju Lee, thanks very much.

LEE: Thank you so much.


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