"In North Korea, most people have almost no choice about things we take for granted," says Krys Lee, author of the 2012 short story collection about the North and South Korean diaspora, Drifting House. While Lee’s stories are fiction, they are based on her real-life experience. For years, she has worked with North Korean defectors who brave incredible hardship and danger—imprisonment, sex trafficking, and torture, for example—to cross international borders into freedom.
“Even your jobs are assigned, and most of them don’t even pay,” Lee explains. “For the average North Korean, just to be a truck driver is a dream. You have to hustle just to put food on the table. Forget about traveling out of the country—there’s no freedom of movement, unless you are of a higher class.”
Amnesty International has long documented North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, concluding that freedom of expression and association are almost non-existent. What’s more, an estimated 200,000 political prisoners are locked away in hard-labor camps, where they toil for up to 12 hours a day and face appalling conditions, as well as the threat of torture and death; babies born into labor camps remain imprisoned in them. Meanwhile, more than a third of the population is suffering food shortages—people reportedly survive by eating bark and grass—and the healthcare system is in shambles, with major surgeries undertaken without anesthesia.
For so many North Koreans, escape is their one big hope. To that end, Lee set up a safe house in northeast China, near the North Korean border, that harbors defectors until they can be transported into countries such as South Korea and the U.S. “There are activists there who are saving lives,” she says, humbly. “I am a small part of what goes on.”
In Seoul, where Lee, an American citizen, is partly based, the writer often mentors defectors who have, against extreme odds, finally made a home in the South Korean capital. And yet, that is when a whole new set of problems emerges.
“Defectors often need help in adjusting to a new life in South Korea," says Lee. “For example, I might help them learn how to use a bank. These kinds of everyday tasks are all new to them.”
For defectors who escape, says Lee, “Freedom is like a dream, but it’s also very, very hard. They suddenly need to compete with people who have been free all their lives. There’s a lot of discrimination. Many of these people are overwhelmed by capitalism, by choices, by money, by waste. It’s bewildering and frightening.”
"Many defectors suffer intense depression, the aftermath of traumatic events in North Korea and China,” says Lee. “They’ve suffered human rights abuses. Many have had to leave their families and have also lost their language, culture, and history.”
There are simple ways to help North Korean defectors. First, you can donate to trustworthy organizations whose funds go primarily to the defectors, and not to administrators. Lee suggests the Seoul-based NGO Citizens’ Alliance. In addition, says Lee, you can be a friend and mentor to such defectors. “Many are very lonely,” she says. “They’ve lost everything, and they’re just trying to start a new life. They are generally warm, frank, and trustworthy. Once they trust you, they trust unconditionally. It’s beautiful, really.”
Drifting House, Lee’s debut collection of short stories, has already gained international acclaim (in a starred review, Library Journal called the book “breathtaking”). In it, she features North Korean defectors in two of her stories—a way of bringing nuance to an often-sensationalized situation. “A lot of information out there is really simplified or false,” she says. “As a fiction writer, I can write about these defectors as individuals. I’ve gotten emails from readers who say they have been people moved to action, volunteering and donating. I hope my stories can inspire people to address this world more fully.”