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Humans of North Korea: This is freedom

April 7, 2021

I got foreign media from my dad. He was a member of the Korean Workers Party and many of his friends were security agents. They confiscated a lot of foreign media and gave it to my dad and he would bring it home.

Some of my most vivid memories are getting together with my friends at someone’s house, shutting off all the lights, and secretly watching South Korean dramas. It was exhilarating. If you heard anything outside, you’d get startled and think,

“Did they come to arrest us? Are we going to jail now?” It was thrilling doing things we knew we shouldn’t do.

Everything portrayed in the South Korean dramas was so clean and everyone seemed so wealthy. I used to think “Wow, there is such a world out there.” We were taught that South Korea was a poor country but I wondered, “Why can’t we live like that?”


I wanted to wear clothes from the dramas but I couldn’t find them anywhere. We used to get a lot of used clothes from the market down by the harbor. You either find used clothes or fabric and have a tailor make the outfit for you. After three or four days of wearing a new style, everyone would be wearing the same thing because it looked so cool.


My designs were very popular. If I started wearing something new, there was always someone who would wear similarly styled clothes because the number of South Korean dramas that inspired us was so limited. Girls would ask me where I got my clothes and if I wanted to exchange outfits. Bartering was very common and sometimes they’d offer their more expensive clothes in exchange for mine.


But you had to look out for the Inspection Unit. If they caught you wearing jeans and a hoodie, they’d cut the bottom of the jeans with scissors. My sister and brother were older than me so their friends were sometimes in the Inspection Unit. If I knew the person, I would just tell them, “I’ll go change right now” or “I’ll give you these jeans but please don’t cut the bottoms off” and I would go get it back from them later.


The regime doesn’t want people wearing those kinds of clothes. I think it’s because things like jeans symbolize freedom. North Korean society is so restricted that if they allowed jeans there would be no end to what people would want to wear.

Even now in South Korea, every time I put on a pair of jeans I think, “This is freedom.”


- Jihyun Kang
escaped North Korea in 2009. She now works in the fashion industry in Seoul.



North Korean Agents of Change | Seohyun’s Story

November 28, 2022

It was an ordinary taxi ride. The driver struck up a casual conversation, commenting about the weather, asking what I do. At some point I shared that I was from North Korea- after two years studying abroad in China, I was used to the curiosity that typically followed.

But instead, the driver pointed to a picture of Deng Xiaoping on his rear view mirror. He explained how China was able to open up, reform, and get out of poverty. Then he asked, very pointedly, “why hasn’t your leader done the same thing, and left the people to starve?”

That was the moment when over two decades of brainwashing finally began to unravel.

My name is Seohyun Lee and I’m an advocate for the North Korean people. I was born and raised in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. This is my story.

I had the unique opportunity to study in China because of my father’s position and commitment to the regime. He was a high-ranking overseas economic officer, and was allowed to bring his children if he could afford all living expenses and tuition. At first, my brother and I alternated our time in China- one member of the family always had to stay behind as a hostage. But in 2010, the regime adopted a more open policy that allowed entire families to be together, so we were all finally reunited.

Growing up in Pyongyang, the circle of elites was very small. Every so often, you’d hear about a family that was sent to a political prison camp because someone’s son or daughter acted out of line. I restrained myself from an early age because I knew my actions and words could threaten the safety of my loved ones.

So even after learning the truth about North Korea, there was not much I could do. I hoped that because Kim Jong Un was a younger guy who had also studied abroad in Switzerland, our generation could change North Korea with more open-minded leadership. But it turned out to be even worse than before.

My fondest memories in China are with my roommate, another North Korean exchange student. She was my best friend and like a big sister to me. We traveled, shopped, and shared many delicious meals together.  When I was sick with the flu, she took me to the hospital and stayed by my side until my IV was finished. During those years, she was like another part of me.

I’ll never forget the last time I saw her. I watched helplessly as she was forcefully taken from our dorm room by North Korean officers. Her father was executed for being associated with Kim Jong Un’s uncle, and she was sent to a political prison camp with the rest of her family. 

That day, my eyes were opened to the brutality of the regime. To them, we were  just like batteries to be thrown away when used up. Our lives never mattered.

I miss her so much. I really want to believe that she’s still alive, and one day I can meet her again.

What happened to my roommate was not an isolated incident. Starting in 2013, there were countless executions and purges happening in North Korea under the Kim Jong Un regime. My family and I lost many friends, neighbors, and respected colleagues. While dealing with great loss, we also knew that at any moment, we could be next.

It was a crisp fall evening. My family and I drove to a park and left our phones in the car. We walked until we were out of earshot, and finally talked openly about what we should do.

My father worked hard because he had hope that improving the economy would better the lives of the people. But we realized that under the current system, what he desired was not possible. So in order to save ourselves and also bring change to the country, we decided to leave in October 2014.

My dad still has a huge heart for North Korea. But I want to make sure that his love for the country is separated from being loyal to the regime. Back in North Korea, he worked tirelessly for a better future for the people. Today, he’s working towards the day where every North Korean has guaranteed human rights and three meals a day.

Like a lot of Asian parents, my father is not good at outwardly expressing affection. The way it manifests is through constant nagging. I didn't get it when I was young, but as I’ve gotten older, I now understand that's how he shows his love and care for us.

There have been moments when I’ve wished I was born in a different country. But when I think about my family, I never regret it. 

My dad has been our foundation, my mom is the most thoughtful and perfect woman I know, and my brother has always looked out for me. We all love and support each other, especially after going through so much together.

This fall, I started my graduate studies at Columbia University. I never imagined that I would be chasing my dreams here in America. I hope to use everything I learn to bring a better future for the North Korean people, even after they become free from the current regime.

When my family and I left China, we came here not only to save ourselves, but with ambitions to change the system and bring freedom. Many people have not been as lucky as I have, so I feel it is my privilege and obligation to be a voice for my fellow North Koreans. I believe many of them are already opening their minds to the outside world. 

We need to let them know that there’s a global movement of people who have their backs, and we can’t wait for them to be free.

It’s #GivingTuesday, the year’s biggest day of generosity! As we work towards creating the best version of our world, we’re making sure it’s one where every North Korean is free.

Your support will allow us to continue investing in North Korean agents of change - people like Seohyun - who are leading this movement and transforming one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Through access to English language programs, mentorship, scholarships, and more, you can help us support more North Korean refugees as they pursue their dreams and impact this issue.

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