Defectors Reflect On Life In North Korea : Parallels Now in Seoul, North Korean defectors recall life inside one of the world's most secretive regimes, talking of brainwashing, required military service — and the jolt of seeing the outside world.

'I Was Shocked By Freedom': Defectors Reflect On Life In North Korea

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North Korea is one of the most secretive regimes in the world. Its leader demands unquestioning loyalty from its citizens. NPR's Lauren Frayer had a chance to hear about what it's like living under those circumstances from the people who know - North Korean defectors. The women she talked with shared stories about life in North Korea the last time tensions with the West were running high.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Korean).


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This video of a North Korean parade last month shows soldiers marching in formation. Lee So-yeon knows all the steps because she was once one of those soldiers.

LEE SO-YEON: (Through interpreter) All of us soldiers had to march. It unified us and showed off our strength to the outside world.

FRAYER: When famine devastated North Korea in the 1990s, women volunteered for the military in droves, many for the food rations. Lee joined in 1992 and served nearly 10 years. She tried to defect, was imprisoned and tortured. And finally, in 2008, she managed to sneak across the Tumen River to China.

LEE S.: (Through interpreter) I was shocked by freedom. I didn't need permission to do anything. I couldn't believe there was hot water, hairdryers. I could vote for whomever I wanted and all the food.

FRAYER: Lee has since become an advocate for female defectors, but from her time in the military, she's able to offer insight into what the North Korean government wants its own people to know. As a soldier, state TV blasted nonstop in her office, she says.

LEE S.: (Through interpreter) There's a TV in every army barracks. When there was a nuclear test, state TV told us to feel proud, so we did. Even when there were peace talks between North and South Korea, state TV told us it was a ploy for the South to take over our country.

FRAYER: The media in North Korea do not merely report information. Instead, they're a tool for the regime to stir emotion, especially when it feels threatened - as it does now - says John Young son, a professor of North Korea studies in Seoul.

JEON YOUNG-SUN: (Through interpreter) Outside pressure on North Korea - sanctions or threats of attack - actually help the regime. North Korea is, as always, on the defensive, and fear rallies people around their dear leader.


FRAYER: And it's not just soldiers. Lee Hyeonseo, another defector, was a high school student in 1994 when the Clinton administration came close to a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea's nuclear program. Her school ended classes and sent the students out digging trenches for months.

LEE HYEONSEO: We were so scared at the time. We really thought we going to have a war. And then we were proud. We believed we going to win in this war because our dear leader, they're superior - and gods - who can make everything happen.

FRAYER: For her, the state was everywhere.

LEE H.: What we hear, what we see the most is the dear leader's name. I'm not joking. It's like a hundred times in a day.

FRAYER: On TV, in school and even in song. During my interview with Lee So-yeon, the former North Korean soldier, she begins to sing...

LEE S.: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: ...About becoming a bullet for the dear leader.

LEE S.: (Singing in Korean, laughter).

FRAYER: And then she laughs. She realizes how strange it sounds to sing this here in the South Korean capital.

LEE S.: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: "But I was brainwashed," she says, "and that's what's scary." Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Seoul.

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