SEOUL — At first, Lee Pyung had no desire to tell the whole world the difficult, emotional story of how he escaped North Korea. When he first started livestreaming in 2015, he dropped it in casually — “I’m from North Korea” — like you might tell someone at a party where your hometown is.
To his surprise, many of his viewers didn’t believe him.
“A lot of people were intrigued by the fact that I didn’t ‘look like’ a North Korean. They imagined I’d be short, have small eyes and dark skin,” said 25-year-old Lee.
Lee is tall — more than 6 feet — with a sleek haircut and the casual confidence to match. His right arm is covered with bright tattoos, and he used to earn a living modeling clothes at a shopping mall. In short, he doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype.
“I guess that reveals a kind of ignorance about North Korea,” he said. ”It’s the belief that we are like a completely different race, even though in school South Koreans learn over and over again that we are from the same bloodline.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invoked the same notion when he addressed the world’s media at a historic summit in South Korea last week that was heavy with symbolism. The two countries, Kim said, share “the same people, the same blood.” The meeting was short on concrete goals, but Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said they would work toward building peace on the peninsula this year.
The two countries remain technically at war, divided by a heavily militarized border and largely unable to communicate, but tens of thousands of South Koreans have some family in the north. In the decades since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has modernized rapidly and transformed into one of Asia’s economic powerhouses, while North Korea’s economy stagnated under one of the world’s harshest dictatorships, which drove the country into a devastating famine in the 1990s and brutally represses all political dissent.
In response to the skeptical commenters, Lee gave in and told his viewers on AfreecaTV, one of the South Korean broadcasting platforms at the forefront of the country’s livestreaming boom, the story of how he left his country at the age of 11. The video blew up, attracting tens of thousands of viewers. Many commented with basic, earnest questions about life in North Korea. Lee knew he had hit on something important.
“I feel an enormous sense of responsibility,” he said in an interview at his studio in eastern Seoul. “I was very aware of any mistakes I made that could give people the wrong idea about North Korean defectors.”
At a time when the world is obsessed with North Korea, the Kim dynasty, and its nuclear weapons, Lee is one of a handful of defectors who have been sharing their stories in vlogs and livestreams, explaining what life is like in North Korea to millions of viewers in the South. In Lee’s case, it’s a story of crossing frozen rivers and deserts, of escaping only to be caught and imprisoned in North Korea, and of leaving loved ones behind.
Lee grew up in the seaside North Korean city of Chongjin, living with his grandmother while his mother and father — to his knowledge anyway — were working across the border in China, sending money home. North Korea was still reeling from a famine that had killed millions of people in the 1990s. But by North Korean standards, the family was well off, and most of Lee’s memories of childhood are happy. In the mornings he would wake early in their small apartment and help his grandmother press together rice cakes, which she would sell to fishermen. In the summers he would run to the beach and swim in the cold, clear water.
Late one winter night, when Lee was 8 years old, his grandmother shook him awake. A strange man was in the apartment, and Lee’s grandmother said he was taking them to visit his parents in China. They took a train and a bus and crossed the Tumen River — then frozen over — to northern China, bribing the border guards. By Chinese standards, the northern Chinese city of Yanji is a fairly ordinary place, but to Lee, the twinkling lights of the ubiquitous high-rises were stunning.
“It was so bright and there were so many people,” he recalled with a slow grin, sitting on a sofa in the sparse, unheated two-room studio in Seoul where he records his videos. “I remember thinking, why does nighttime seem as bright as day here?”
From there they made their way to Beijing, where Lee saw his father for the first time in years and found out his parents had already settled in Seoul. His father had returned to China to make arrangements for Lee and his grandmother to escape to South Korea too.
Lee was too young then to understand how dangerous and expensive the journey had been for his family, or that the strange man in his apartment had been a people smuggler. He was too young, even, to know that he should have been afraid. He just wanted to go home.
But his parents were set on him joining them in South Korea. Lee and his grandmother went together to an apartment in a different part of the city, where they hid out with 30 other North Koreans, waiting to start the next leg of their journey. Lee’s father thought it would be safer if they split up.
But before they could depart, Chinese police burst through the doors. Someone had tipped them off. Lee and his grandmother were sent back to North Korea, where they spent a month in a prison camp. It’s a time Lee remembers as the end of childhood, marked by brutality and hunger. North Korea’s government operates a system of incredibly repressive prisons, where reports of torture, starvation, and abuse are commonplace from those who have spent time in them. A UN report has estimated up to 120,000 people are being held in political prison camps alone.
At the camp, Lee’s grandmother became seriously ill.
“When we went back home, everyone treated us like pariahs for what we had done,” Lee said. “For three years, I was really careful. I tried not to do anything.”
Because he had tried to leave North Korea, Lee wasn’t allowed to go back to school. Their neighbors wouldn’t speak to him, afraid of being associated with an ex-prisoner. He tried to keep a low profile.
Three years passed. Then one night, another people smuggler came to the apartment. Lee was afraid.
“I said, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m doing this again,’” he remembered.
But his grandmother pushed him. North Koreans who have tried to flee — or whose families have left the country — are frequently punished and denied opportunities. There could be no future for Lee in North Korea, she said. And besides, he belonged with his parents.
Lee went with the smuggler. His grandmother was too sick to go with them.
This time it was summer, and one of the guards at the Chinese border carried 11-year-old Lee across the Tumen River on his shoulders. This time, he felt a deep-set resolve.
They made their way north through the Gobi Desert to China’s border with Mongolia, and from there Lee was able to flee to South Korea. But the pain of leaving his grandmother behind has stayed with him, and talking about the memory still brings tears to his eyes.
It was tough adjusting to life in Seoul. Lee had never really lived with his parents — at first they seemed like strangers to him. He was also the only North Korean kid at school.
But Lee has always been good at adapting to new situations, said his childhood friend Kim Ik-seong, who now manages his livestreaming business. The two boys became fast friends after discovering a mutual interest in rollerblades.
Lee worked hard not to stick out, changing his accent and beating up kids who made fun of him on the playground.
“He had a knack for fitting in,” Kim remembered.
Lee is one of around 31,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, a country of 51 million people, so the chances that an average person there has met a North Korean in real life are pretty low.
In the past few years, defectors have started appearing on South Korean talk shows and reality TV programs, giving the public a taste of what ordinary North Koreans look like. But there’s disagreement about whether many of the shows actually break or reinforce existing stereotypes.
One popular talk show, called Now On My Way to Meet You, features an array of “North Korean beauties” — female defectors — perched on bubbly white chairs on a pink-and-purple set, explaining aspects of life in the country from labor camps to skin care products. The program involves plenty of crying, dramatic music, and other theatrics.
Another program, a dating show called Love Unification, pairs up North Korean women with South Korean men and sets them up with challenges that draw attention to the woman’s supposed unfamiliarity with modern life, making her out to be a kind of damsel in distress.
Stereotypes about North Koreans being a nation of mindless slaves or communist apparatchiks undoubtedly persist in the US too. A poll last year found that only 36% of Americans were able to find North Korea on a map, and portrayals of the country in pop culture — from Team America: World Police to The Interview — have focused on poking fun at the country’s ruling Kim family rather than on what ordinary North Koreans are like.
Lee finds the South Korean shows to be overly sentimental. He likes vlogging and livestreaming because he can control how he’s presented, and because it allows him to answer viewers’ questions directly. There’s no pressure to dramatize his experience or conform it to a TV producer’s preconceptions. He can be the hero in his own story rather than a victim.
“Those shows start with laughing and end in tears,” he said. “There’s a kind of manufactured quality to it. ”
South Koreans probably know more about North Korea than people from any other country do. But the younger generation, who have no memory of the Korean War, feels less connected to the North.
A December 2017 poll conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification found that only 39% of South Koreans between 20 and 29 years old thought it was necessary for the Koreas to unify. But 71% of respondents over the age of 60 thought so.
“Everyone knows about North Korea. But the perception is that it’s Kim Jong Un, weapons and missiles,” said Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, an NGO that works with North Korean defectors and recently produced a documentary focusing on how millennials are changing the country.
“We are making the mistake of focusing only on high politics, not low politics,” Park said. “North Korean people are not just victims. They are people like you and I. They have agency and the ability to create change.”
When Lee first joined AfreecaTV, he didn’t know of too many other North Korean defectors using it to talk about their experiences. Now a few others have taken up livestreaming, including Son Bom-hyang, whose defection story garnered more than 5 million views, and Nara Kang, who developed a fan base after stints on TV programs and uses social media to keep in touch with her followers. Like Lee they answer plenty of basic questions from their curious viewers about the way North Koreans live.
It isn’t just that North Koreans are perceived to be ignorant and poor, Lee said. Trolls have accused Lee of taking advantage of the largesse of the state, which assists defectors with resettlement. In some ways, the stigmas faced by defectors in South Korea are not unlike those faced by migrants in any other country.
“People think that defectors have it easy here,” he said. “It’s the welfare myth — they think we are tax-eating bugs.”
About three months after he told the story of his defection, Lee began racking up tens of thousands of followers, month after month. He began receiving little gifts in the mail, like clothing and gourmet snacks. It didn’t dawn on Lee that he had attracted a loyal following until he went to a popular nightlife district in Seoul to livestream, and found himself mobbed by fans who had seen where he was online.
He now earns between $1,700 and $2,900 a week, he said
In some ways, explaining the story of how you escaped North Korea to South Koreans is like being a war veteran trying to explain what serving in Iraq is like to friends back home. It tends to elicit a mix of pity and awkwardness.
Lee has gotten sick of being asked about the story by commenters. So he’s taking a step back from livestreaming, planning to focus on posting vlogs to YouTube and answering questions about everyday life in North Korea.
Lee also hates talking about the ruling Kim family and the politics of North Korea, said Kim Ik-seong, his childhood friend.
“He’s simply not interested,” he said. “His stream is about cultural topics by default. He just passes on the political questions.”
Still, the tangle of tattoos that stretch up his right forearm reminds Lee of the trials and milestones of his past, a personal history inked onto his skin.
There are skulls to mark the starvation and death he witnessed as a child at the prison camp. There are orange blossoms to signify the good fortune of his new life. And on the underside of his arm, near his wrist, is a red rose with a set of pointed teeth embedded in its center — a reminder not to judge people by their appearances.
With additional reporting by Max Kim.