It took Jiyeong Lee almost 20 years to feel “like a human being”.
She had never heard of Australia, never mind Brisbane, and now the 25-year-old is living there.
The outfit she is wearing against the unpredictable weather – a leather jacket and blue dress – is something she was never able to wear in her hometown because it could get her arrested.
Jiyeong is one of the rare North Korean defectors who make Brisbane their home, at least temporarily.
According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Australia is granting less than five permanent visas and five tourist visas to North Korean nationals per year. Jiyeong is now holding a student visa, living in student accommodation and hoping to find a nursing job so that she can stay in Australia longer.
Realising real lies
Jiyeong grew up in Yonghunghang, which is a small town on the east coast in North Korea. Yonghunghang only has few trees since they were cut down to make firewood, yet the air is clean due to the lack of vehicles. It is now a popular tourist spot thanks to the country’s leader Kim Jong-un – it’s one of his missile launch sites.
But, the biggest difference for Jiyeong is not the physical landscape, it’s the mental one.
“Some of my friends in North Korea don’t even remember their father’s birthday but all of the citizens have to know the leaders’ birthdays,” Jiyeoung says. “People in North Korea can’t have comparison with the others. There is no information or internet in the country, just about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. That’s why, when Kim Jong-il passed away, all of the people were crying. And it’s true, half of the people in North Korea believe everything the leaders say.”
Jiyeong now believes that most of the things she was told were not true. Yet reaching this understanding has taken her a long period of time.
“I decided to escape from North Korean when I was 16 years old because my grandpa said ‘if you want to feel like a human being and to have freedom, you can leave your country’,” she says.
Jiyeong’s grandparents are very open-minded. They have visited relatives who live in China and they know what is happening in the world outside the secretive regime. South Korean and American movies were only sold in black markets and watched secretly.
A dangerous journey
These small insights of the outside world were enough to trigger Jiyeoung’s desire to flee. When she decided to escape, in order to avoid suspicion, she stayed away from her family. Three years later, when she was 19, she hired a people smuggler.
“I had been always dreaming to live in another country,” she says. “Even if I got caught by the soldiers and killed by them, it was OK, I must go.”
On the night of her escape, Jiyeong was only took the few clothes on her back. She crossed the border between North Korea and China over the Yalu river. The water level was as high as her shoulders and she was escaping with four other people, with an infant in the group.
“I was so afraid when the baby started crying. I was scared that the soldiers would hear him and they would shoot us,” she said.
After Jiyeong arrived in China, she had to travel around the country by track, truck and taxi for seven days. She had been sexually harassed when the group was hiding in a secret compartment of the truck.
“There were a few men, four men walked toward us and they touched us but we could not scream or say anything,” Jiyeoung said.
“It was the most terrible time for me … maybe we would get caught by the soldiers and we had to go back to North Korea.”
According to LIBERTY IN NORTH KOREA, 70 per cent of defectors are female, who are usually left out of the workplaces and forced to stay at home in the male-controlled society.
Many of them sell themselves to Chinese men as a way out.
Since Jiyeong was so desperate to escape from North Korea, she also considered this option.
However, Jiyeong’s journey did not end in China. When she was making her way to Laos, she doubted if she had made the correct decision on the secret track.
“At that time, I really wanted to go back to my home country because I didn’t know it would be so difficult to leave,” she said. But she continued her journey and arrived in Thailand after a month, where she went to jail and waited to get refugee status.
“There were real criminals in where we stayed,” Jiyeong says. “Our group wanted to fight and get out but we couldn’t, we don’t have citizenship.”
The group was finally taken to a South Korean detention centre after 50 days and they were being monitored there for three months.
“The government wanted to check our life in North Korea and they needed to make sure none of us was a spy,” Jiyeong says.
A whole new world
In Brisbane, Jiyeong is now studying Nursing at Queensland University of Technology and she has a part time job at a café. However, before she arrived South Korea she did not even know how to order a cup of coffee. She needed to learn what a cappuccino was, and a macchiato.
“It’s hard for us to remember everything because they are all new to us,” Jiyeong says.
“I joined a government program for six months in South Korea and then I got freedom finally, but I also had no time to think of a new life or new country.”
Jiyeong says she has faced many challenges after leaving her home country and family.
She was used to having kimchi, rice, fish and pork and now she needed to get used to eating beef (cows are only used as working animals for farming in North Korea) and Western food.
“In North Korea, American food is not allowed because they (America) are our enemy,” Jiyeong says.
She also loves the trees in Brisbane.
“Here in Brisbane the nature is so beautiful, we don’t have trees in Yonghunghang because we use them to (light fires to) cook,” Jiyeoung said.
Jiyeong is sometimes upset with the closed-mindedness and misconceptions in Australia when people talk about North Korea and its population of 25 million citizens.
“Sometimes it will make me sad and angry, I want people to know that North Korea is a country as well, we also have rich people in our country, but they just talk about all the bad things,” Jiyeoung says.
“This is why I’m out here and I want to say, although I’m a North Korean and we couldn’t access information, we can do everything.”
Jiyeong has only talked to her grandparents once three years ago, over the phone,
“They cried before I say anything, then I started to cry and they didn’t understand me anymore because of my pronunciation and accent change,” she says. Jiyeong always dreams of her grandparents.
“I just want to say I miss them so much and I love them. Thank you for bringing me up for almost 20 years,” she says.
“I always tell my friends to treat their parents well because you will never know what is going to happen in the future.”
She also has some words for people who live in Australia and tend to complain: “I want them to know, they have their family, they have freedom, they have everything.”
“If you are ever in a difficult situation, if you know about us (North Koreans), you can be stronger. You can think ‘my life is actually so good and it is enough for me’.”