Josie Reich, Contributing Photographer

North Korean defector and human rights advocate Seohyun Lee spoke with students on Monday, detailing the story of how she defected.

In her Nov. 6 talk, Lee also spoke about how she advocates for focusing international conversation about North Korea on the experience of the country’s citizens. Her talk and a subsequent Q&A and dinner with select students kicked off Yale’s first-ever Korea Week.

Lee was born and raised in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, before moving to the Liaoning province of China in 2010 to complete her bachelor’s degree. She said that she was afforded the rare privilege of leaving North Korea because her father, Ri Jong Ho, was a high-ranking economic official in the Kim regime. She told almost 100 students gathered in Linsly-Chittenden Hall that she was educated in North Korea’s most prestigious schools and is now torn between pride for her accomplishments and the knowledge that her education was a birthright of her elite background.

In 2014, she defected to South Korea along with her parents and brother, which she said was spurred by a series of purges by the Kim regime. After her father reportedly received direct threats from the North Korean government, they relocated to the United States in 2016.

“The intelligence people were searching for us and they had my grandmother and uncle on TV,” Lee told the News. “The video they made was very specific, they knew where we were already. The message was clear: my relatives were hostages. That was the last time I saw them.” 

Lee said that she has little ability to figure out what has happened to her family members who remain in North Korea, although she said she has heard that her uncle was sentenced to a lifelong punishment, possibly in a detention camp or a political prison camp. She speculated that the government gave her uncle a harsher punishment because of her and her family’s defection and subsequent human rights work.

Data from the Ministry of Unification, an executive department of the South Korean government, shows that there are 34,021 North Korean defectors in South Korea. The number of annual defectors hovered around the high 2000s until 2011, the Ministry report shows, which is when Kim Jong Un assumed power as Supreme Leader of North Korea. That figure dropped to the mid-1000s in his first year in office and has continued to decrease ever since, plummeting to double and triple digits in the years since 2020, which brought the COVID-19 pandemic and tightened border restrictions. The Ministry’s data for this year shows that as of September, only 139 defectors have entered South Korea.

Defectors are automatically granted citizenship if they reach South Korea, but many make the journey through China, which has a policy of forced repatriation for North Koreans.

“It is a matter of risking all your family members’ lives,” Lee said, discussing the possibility of being caught while fleeing and the consequences of defecting for those who remain. “If it was just your life, I believe hundreds of thousands more people would have defected or stood up to the regime.”

Jieun Pyun, the director for Asia in Yale’s Office of International Affairs, said that Lee’s story is rare because most defectors Pyun knows of lived in North Korea’s border states and were not societally elite.

The Ministry’s records show that the vast majority of North Korean defectors to South Korea have not received education beyond high school, and that the majority are from North Hamgyong, an underdeveloped region in the North which has recently faced severe food shortages. Only 848 defectors are reported as being natives of Pyongyang.

“Hearing from this generation –– young defectors from Pyongyang –– is different,” Pyun said. “Seohyun’s transition from North Korea to South Korea only took 48 hours. Usually, you have to cross a river, hide in a mountain, and you usually lose people. It’s usually a very tragic story.”

Han Choi ’24, who was born in South Korea, immigrated to the U.S. at age 6 and was granted citizenship two years ago. He attended Monday’s talk with his class, Hwansoo Kim’s “North Korea and Religion.” Kim co-hosted the event and its subsequent dinner.

Choi said he took the class and attended the talk to understand Korea in an academic context and to connect with his ethnic heritage and culture.

“It’s easy to say it’s sad, and it’s easy to sit in a Yale classroom and learn about this,” he said. “But going to talks like this and reading memoirs by North Korean defectors is really important. We’re numb to the issue when we hear about it in the news.”

In her talk, Lee separated North Korean life into three parts: the Kim regime, the elites and the public. She stressed that it is a misconception to think that elites and the Kim regime are always aligned. Lee said that elites, too, are restricted in many ways, are subject to misinformation and deal with punishments and invasions of privacy.

Josh Siegel ’26, another student in “North Korea and Religion,” said that he was intrigued by the mobility of the elite despite the existent restrictions and systems of punishment.

“I found the talk and the dinner following to be an interesting portrayal of the aspects of life that are eerily similar between a middle class American and an elite in North Korea,” he said.

The event was co-hosted by Baram, a student group on campus focused on tutoring North Korean defectors and bringing speakers from the region to campus. Lee is a former tutee and the group’s first guest.

Chanwook Park ’25 launched the group and serves as co-coordinator for its activities. He said that “Baram” means wind in Korean and that group members think of it as translating to “uplifting wind.”

Jocelyn Ra ’22, a post-graduate associate at the Yale School of Medicine, was an original member of Baram and a former co-coordinator.

She said that Baram’s tutoring program is meant to help defectors “navigate American resources,” especially “things that we think are common sense” which may not come naturally to recent immigrants.

Baram is one of two student groups at Yale focused on the people of North Korea. The other is THiNK –– There is Hope in North Korea –– which focuses on human rights work such as educating Americans about the country and connecting South Korean and American student groups.

Lee left students with a list of ways to advocate for North Korean human rights. She called on “people with education and resources” to support human rights organizations such as Liberty in North Korea, New Korea Foundation International and North Korean Human Rights Watch. She also recommended that people view the documentary “Beyond Utopia,” which depicts North Korean defectors’ stories. She also suggested that students reach out to representatives in government that have a hand in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

For now, Lee said that she will return to her studies at Columbia University, where she is in her second year of a master’s degree in international affairs. She is part of “Pyonghattan” –– a nickname for the young, rich one percent of North Korea who she said are increasingly viewed as paralleling New York’s wealthy elite. Lee and her brother Hyunseung Lee, a fellow defector and North Korean rights activist, branded their advocacy-focused YouTube channel with the mash-up name.

Between Nov. 4 and 14, Yale’s Korean Studies program is hosting eight lectures, two film screenings and four culture events with the goal of “bringing the Korean community together and celebrating the country’s rich history and culture,” according to Yale’s website for international activities and initiatives.

The Korean Studies program at Yale, founded in 1947, was disbanded in 1965 and resumed in 1990.