North Korean defector starts to reveal secret past to close friends

February 11, 2013

By HAJIMU TAKEDA/ Staff Writer

The approaching university graduation season is a time when students celebrate their academic achievements and prepare for life in the real world. But one groundbreaking senior does not share the elation of her peers.

For Lee Hana, university marked the start of her life of lies. Determined to conceal her birth in North Korea, she cringed when she heard criticism about Pyongyang and was unable to confide in others about the horrors she experienced or her dramatic defection from her homeland.

"Although I did not feel guilty, I was afraid of losing my place in society by talking frankly about my past," she said.

The 30-year-old in Osaka is now telling her few close acquaintances about her life before Japan. But the process has been slow. And Lee asked to be identified only by the pseudonym she uses on her blog.

A senior at Kwansei Gakuin University, Lee was born in the North Korean city of Sinuiju, which is separated from China by the Yalu River.

In November 2000, when she was 18, Lee defected from North Korea by crossing the river on foot with security officers in pursuit.

After hiding in the northeastern part of China for about five years, Lee landed at Kansai International Airport in November 2005. Both of her parents were ethnic Koreans born in Japan.

She said she carried a razor blade and intended to commit suicide if she was caught and sent back to North Korea.

Lee entered Kwansei Gakuin after receiving a recommendation from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Her parents were part of a large contingent of ethnic Koreans who went to North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s for what they thought would be a better life. Lee herself obtained South Korean citizenship in 2007.

Lee is now one of about 200 North Korean defectors living in Japan. She will be the first among the defectors to graduate from university.

Her university life got off to a rough start due to international events.

In May 2009, one month after she entered Kwansei Gakuin, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, creating what she described as a more negative atmosphere toward the land of her birth.

At university, she habitually sat away from others and gave off body language showing that she wanted to be left alone. To her few friends, she said she was from South Korea.

The stress of concealing her past led her to hole herself up at home for a year.

However, she continued to write in her blog about a university life full of inferiority complexes and failures.

Many of the blog topics dealt with her past life in North Korea. When she was in elementary school, she witnesses a public execution and vomited from the shock of the experience. She also wrote about being deeply saddened by the death of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and of crying her heart out along with her classmates.

Lee also wrote about her surprise to learn that many Japanese thought the North Korean tears were nothing but lies.

In her daily life, just hearing someone say "North Korea" had the effect of an alarm clock. Regardless of how sleepy she felt in class, the moment she heard “North Korea” jolted her awake, Lee wrote in her blog.

Lee has not completely gotten over her past. Although she tried to secure a job after graduation, she gave up when she could not bring herself to honestly write about her birth and upbringing on her resume.

She is thinking about studying for some certification after graduation.

But there have also been a few bright signs.

Lee explained her North Korean background to one of her professors who was always helpful and understanding. It was the first time she revealed that part of her life.

She said she was encouraged when the professor said, "I am truly glad to have met you."

Lee now wants to tell five other people about her background before she graduates.

Last month, she compiled her blog postings into a book published by Asia Press Publishing under the title "Nihon ni ikiru Kitachosenjin, Lee Hana no ippoippo" (A North Korean living in Japan, Lee Hana's step by step).

"I am confident there will come a day when the term North Korean defector will no longer be special," she said.

By HAJIMU TAKEDA/ Staff Writer
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A North Korean who now lives in Japan using the pseudonym of Lee Hana has published a compilation of her blog postings. (Tetsuro Takehana)

A North Korean who now lives in Japan using the pseudonym of Lee Hana has published a compilation of her blog postings. (Tetsuro Takehana)

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  • A North Korean who now lives in Japan using the pseudonym of Lee Hana has published a compilation of her blog postings. (Tetsuro Takehana)

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