Growing up in North Korea, Hyun-Seung Lee says, he had no real understanding of the concept of freedom or human rights. The communist regime monitors citizens so closely, he couldn’t speak freely even in his own home, says Lee, who goes by the nickname Arthur.
“I believe that in my home, there [were] bugs or listening devices, so honestly, when we were in North Korea among our family, we cannot share honest opinion[s],” Lee says.
When he was 29, Lee escaped North Korea with some of his family and eventually made his way to America. Today, he is director of the D.C. office of the Korean Conservative Political Action Conference.
Lee joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about how his childhood in North Korea informs what he wants Americans to know about life under a totalitarian regime.
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Listen to the podcast below or read a portion of the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: It is my pleasure to be joined by Mr. Hyun-Seung “Arthur” Lee. He was born and raised in North Korea and he now serves as the director for the D.C. office for the Conservative Political Action Conference for Korea. Mr. Lee, thank you so much for being here.
Hyun-Seung “Arthur” Lee: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Allen: So, as I mentioned, you were born in North Korea. You were raised in North Korea. You didn’t come to America until your late 20s. Talk a little bit about what it was like for you growing up in North Korea.
Lee: When I was in North Korea, I saw my life as just an ordinary citizen. And then I didn’t know what was freedom. And then the North Korean regime didn’t teach me what was “human rights.” So there’s no words like “human rights,” “freedom.”
And I grew up in a so-called elite environment. So I went to kind of high state education in North Korea. I was out to study foreign language, and then I had a chance to study abroad in China. So I graduated [from a] Chinese college.
And when I was 17, I voluntarily joined the North Korean military, even though my school was exempted from the military service, but I joined the military. So I served more than three years.
And at that time, I experienced what the ordinary citizen’s life actually is. So I visited their home and then I saw their life with my naked eye. So I realized that, “Oh, this is not the country [that] propaganda [described].”
Allen: So you were in some ways a little bit protected in your early childhood from kind of the realities of North Korea in a way?
Lee: I would say all the environments like the capital cities were far better than rural areas. So I was naturally not knowing the rural area situation, even though my relatives are still living in the local area. And then I visited them.
I think I was ignored when I was little. So while growing up, I found out that … the propaganda and then the North Korean situation, what they’re describing is not true. Because in North Korea, the regime emphasizes that North Korea is the best country in the world and the best leader in the world. And while I’m watching South Korean dramas and American movies … there’s a totally different society.
And then I found out that, “Oh, I mean, [if] we are the best country in the world, then why is our living so poor?” And then everybody’s able to travel freely to visit another country and then why we cannot go outside? And then those questions I had, but I cannot share these questions with other people because North Korea is in total control of the society.
Allen: At what age were you when you sort of started questioning, “Wait a second. I’m not sure if what I’ve been told about North Korea is actually true”?
Lee: It’s I think 19 or 20, because I access information, South Korean dramas or South Korean news, and American movies, and then I had the chance to move to China.
Allen: And that was for school, correct?
Lee: Yes. College. … It’s a very rare chance for a North Korean citizen, but my dad served two times in a presidential appointee job. So I was able to have a chance to study. So as soon as I got to China, I can access internet. So I found lots of information. And then I understand how the world sees North Korea. And then the truth was very brutal. So everybody’s talking about human rights in North Korea, sanctions, and missile nuclear development. And then I agreed with their opinion.
Allen: As a child in North Korea, going to school, what were you taught about America and about the West?
Lee: When you’re born in North Korea, you have to forcefully join kind of any form of organization, like Boy Scouts, like Children’s Union, or like a socialist news league. So from the kindergarten, you’re naturally being taught that America is our enemy.
So America invaded the country in 1950, that’s why our great leader is trying to protect people from the invasion of the United States. And then all the propaganda says American people, soldiers kill lots of Koreans and [they’re] brutally executed. So they made an … anti-American museum in North Korea. So when we go there, all the brutal execution scenes by the American soldiers, 1950 to Korean War. So America is the top enemy in our propaganda.
Allen: OK. So, if you chose to say, “I want to serve in North Korea’s military,” you were obviously very invested as a North Korean in your country. That passion and that drive, did that come from your family? Did that come from what you were told in school about North Korea?
Lee: So, I was about to join the college in North Korea and then my dad and I discussed [it] and then, “Oh, be a man. You have to serve the military.” So yeah, I agreed with that because I think I was loyal to [the] country and loyal to the regime, then I believe that military service was to try.
So I voluntarily joined and then I was able to become a member of the North Korea Workers’ Party at age 20. So it’s a very rare chance because many men in North Korea can be a member of the Workers’ Party at age 30 or 40, but I was up to become a member at my age, 20. So I was so proud of myself to become a young member of the Workers’ Party. But the whole perception was changing while I’m studying in China.
Allen: Yeah. Then after you studied in China, did you go back to North Korea?
Lee: Yeah, of course. I was up to go back and forth, vacation. So I had a North Korean passport, so I was out to travel.
Allen: As you were going back and seeing your family, were you talking to them about, “You know what? I’m starting to realize that some of the things that we’ve all been told are maybe not true”?
Lee: Yeah. My dad was the economy official and then he also was assigned a job to introduce investment in North Korea. So he was in China as well. So all my family was in China. But when I go back to North Korea, I talked to my friends and relatives and they keep asking, “I heard that China is so good.” And then in their eyes, China is so much better than North Korea. So I can say that, “Oh—” but, I mean, I cannot say China’s better than North Korea, because if I said that I could be kind of traded.
Allen: Yeah. You were worried for your own safety.
Lee: Yes. So I just say, “It’s normal.” I only lied to them.
Allen: OK. So you knew, “I can’t say anything against North Korea or my own life would be in danger.”
Lee: And then I believe that in my home, there was a bug or listening devices. So honestly, when we were in Korea among our family, we cannot share honest opinions.
Allen: Even in your own home?
Allen: You can’t really say what you think?
Allen: OK. So then what happened to get to the point where you and your family decided, “We need to leave North Korea”?
Lee: I think there was a triggering moment … it was the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek. So, he was the very top official. And then Jang was executed by … Kim Jong Un.
And November 2013, his associates were executed brutally in front of many people. And they killed them with the anti-aircraft guns. And then those top officials and military leaders, they witnessed the scene and then they told us it was so brutal that they could not eat a meal for two days. And I was shocked.
And then one of them was actually my friend’s father-in-law. So I felt bad. And then after a week, I heard that my friend also disappeared. I don’t know where he is now.
And then six months later, one of the friends who we actually went to college in China together disappeared because the friend I had drink a week ago [with], and then I was trying to find him to have lunch or dinner with me. Then I couldn’t contact him. I went to his house, the house is gone. So I asked other friends where this guy is, and he told me rather his grandfather was executed two days ago and his entire family went to the prison camp.
So that kind of ongoing instant gave me very deep frustration and anger toward the regime. And then my dad also lost lots of friends because Kim Jong Un killed, purged about 500 officers from November 2013 to October 2014. And among them, there are lots of my father’s friends.
And then also my sister’s roommate in China, she was arrested in front of her and sent back to North Korea. So my sister was so shocked.
And then the day her roommate was arrested in her dorm, she came back home and she was very shaky. Several days later, we decide that, “I think this is not the country we can live in.” And then, “I think this is not the leader we should serve. So we should find freedom. We should leave this country for freedom.” And then my dad also emphasized that, “I think we should do something for our people.”
Allen: Yeah. So were you able to cross the border freely because of your family and your status, or did you-all literally have to escape in the dark of night?
Lee: Technically we were in China as a North Korean official, my dad was official. I had a passport. So we were able to come to China. So when we decided that, all my family was in China. If one of my family is in North Korea, I don’t think we can make a decision easily because it’s so painful to see families leaving behind.
And the day we left, we were very worried because I don’t know what CCP, or Chinese Communist Party, or the North Korean regime can do to us. So, yeah. But eventually we made it happen.
Allen: You went to South Korea for a time, right?
Allen: And then in 2016, you made your way to America?
Allen: What was that like, coming to America for the first time and experiencing a place that you’d heard a lot about, but never seen?
Lee: Yeah. As you know, I watched American movies a lot. So I had some basic understanding. Obviously, nowadays, there’s some information in North Korea, too. So I don’t think every North Korean believes that America is the bad country or enemy of an Asian. And then many people nowadays know America is the most prosperous country. So I had a basic understanding.
And then when I come to the U.S., then I feel very comfortable because in South Korea, my safety also is threatened by the regime. The North Korean regime actually showed my grandma and uncle and my aunt on North Korean TV show that threatened “Do not stay in South Korea.” And while we are in South Korea, there’s some threat from North Korean agents. So that was one of the reasons we decided to leave South Korea and come to the U.S. as well.
Allen: Do you still have family members in North Korea?
Lee: My relatives. All my relatives, my mother’s side, father’s side.
Allen: Do you worry for their safety?
Lee: Yeah. Unfortunately, several people were punished and then all the relatives who lived in the capital city, they were all relocated to the rural area. So that’s the latest information I have.
Allen: Yeah. Do you think by and large that the people of North Korea, whether in cities or in rural areas, know that they are being oppressed?
Lee: I don’t think many of them know exactly because they only access the propaganda. So in North Korea, there’s one broadcasting channel—I mean the radio—and then there are only two or three TV channels. So if you don’t access outside information, then you only can be brainwashed.
Allen: So now you work for the Conservative Political Action Conference Korea. You value, obviously, freedom and independence and liberty. How are you going about sharing those principles and what would you want young people and Americans in general to know about North Korea, to know about China, to know about oppressive regimes?
Lee: So, three years ago, I think, I found out that in America, lots of young people think socialism is not bad. And when I listened to that, I was speechless, because I lived in a socialist country almost three decades. And then I believe that socialism’s final goal is to become a totalitarian regime and then a dictatorship. And a totalitarian regime is almost absolute control of the people, no more freedom.
So I want to say, when I was in North Korea, no one has ever told me that the regime is oppressing me. And then no one else told me that my freedom is taken away by the regime. So I want to let American young people know that socialism and communism is not the ideal as in a book, and I hope that they realize the actual reality of the socialist countries.
So I think it’s the people. Even though the socialism ideal sounds good, looks good, the people won’t be as nice like that. So North Korea started with communism and then they transformed to socialism and then later they become a totalitarian regime and now this cult dictatorship. …
American people should not think freedom is taken for granted. So if you’re not fighting for your freedom, then I think your freedom will be eliminated by the power elites and authoritarian government. Yeah.
Allen: And how can we follow your work? How can we follow what you’re up to?
Lee: Yeah, my sister and I, actually, operate a YouTube channel named Pyonghattan.
Allen: Mr. Lee, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate you sharing your story.
Lee: Thank you so much for having me.
Allen: It’s a pleasure.
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