top of page

Defecting From the ‘Ultimate Propaganda Country’: Hyun-Seung Lee

[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] “I’ve communicated with some people inside of North Korea, and I heard from them that the recent famine is very similar to [the] 1990s famine. And, as we all know, almost 3 million people died of starvation during that time.”

Hyun-Seung Lee, otherwise known as “Arthur” Lee, is a former member of the North Korean ruling party. He and his family were fiercely loyal to the communist regime. But being on the side of economic reform and having witnessed several brutal internal purges by Kim Jong Un—including that of Kim’s uncle—the family made the decision to defect.

“Many people, especially top people, and even [the] general public in Pyongyang City, don’t know what’s happening outside Pyongyang because of the isolation of the information. The regime structure controls the information distribution,” says Mr. Lee.

We discuss North Korea’s current food crisis, the regime’s nuclear weapons program, the value of free information, and what can be done to bring about change.

“North Korea’s regime keeps saying that once we have nuclear weapons, we’ll live [a] better life … and we will be a strong country in terms of economy and the military side. Now, they have enough nuclear weapons—and the people are still suffering from starvation,” he says.

Despite the political and cultural divisions in the United States, Mr. Lee believes that it is one of the world’s greatest nations in terms of its commitment to democracy and individual freedoms.

“American people should respect this society, because many people in the world think that still, America is the best. The freedom they have cannot be compared to the other nations,” says Mr. Lee.


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek: Arthur Lee, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Arthur Lee: Thank you for having me.

Mr. Jekielek: Arthur, you are a defector from North Korea. We’ve known each other for a while now, and I’m very excited to finally have you on. There’s been a lot of incredibly troubling information coming out of North Korea recently. There’s this BBC documentary that talks about a famine so bad that it might be like it was in the 90s, which was absolutely terrible. North Korea is accusing the U.S. of trying to ignite a nuclear war. There are huge rallies being staged to that effect in the Korean capital. Basically, it’s a lot of nuclear bluster, which is never good. How do we make sense of all this?

Mr. Lee: First of all, my name is Hyun-Seung, Arthur Lee, and I’m a North Korean escapee. I escaped North Korea when I was 29 years old. I saw that BBC documentary as well. I’ve communicated with some people inside of North Korea, and I heard that this recent famine is very similar to the 1990s famine. As we all know, almost 3 million people died of starvation during that time. But most people in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, didn’t realize what happened in the rural areas. I would say it’s a very similar situation.

The top people inside the city don’t realize what’s happening. But the people in the rural areas are suffering from starvation. The BBC documentary uses very reliable resources. It’s very sad for me and my fellow North Koreans that we are still suffering from starvation in the 21st century. As you mentioned earlier, the North Korean regime keeps immobilizing its people, and promoting everything against the United States inside of North Korea. That is one of their strategies, bonding people into one against the U.S.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re saying that the nuclear buster is more for the internal population to say, “There’s our enemy, and we have to unite against them.” Is that what you’re saying?

Mr. Lee: That analysis is accurate. For Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, it is a lifelong project. When we were in North Korea, the regime kept saying, “Once we have nuclear weapons, we’ll live a better life than before, and we will be a strong country in terms of the economy and the military side.” Now they have nuclear weapons, and the people are still suffering from starvation.

People keep questioning, “What’s the difference?” But for the regime, it’s a narrative and tactic to keep developing nuclear weapons. The hostile policy against the United States is the core policy of the regime. It isolates the country, and keeps utilizing resources to develop nuclear weapons.

Mr. Jekielek: It might not be obvious how different the people in Pyongyang are from the rural areas, and how they perceive each other differently. This is not an academic question for you, because you are from Pyongyan where the elites live. Please tell me your story, because it’s unusual that someone from the elite class ends up being a defector, given that you had a pretty good life compared to most people.

Mr. Lee: In many aspects, my story is different from many North Korean escapees. Pyongyang has the most of everything, including resources and power. The people living in Pyongyang are the people who actually shine in North Korea, and they’re ruling North Korea. I was a core elite member in the society, since my dad served twice in higher ranking positions in the country. These positions were directly appointed by the former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un’s father.

Because of my father’s high ranking position, I went to top schools, and I was loyal to the regime. I served in the North Korean military for three years, and I was a member of the North Korean ruling party. I joined the party when I was 20 which is unprecedented. I was among the leading young personnel who could become the young leaders of North Korea. But I had an opportunity to study abroad in China, and that changed my whole point of view in life.

Eventually, my family made a life decision to defect in October, 2014. The decision was not easy because that meant that we had to give up everything that we had achieved in the past. But in 2013, there was a big incident that the media publicized—Kim Jong Un’s uncle’s execution, along with his fellow associates and aides. It was not just Kim Jong Un’s uncle’s execution, it was related to his whole staff. We assume that hundreds of officials were executed, and their families were sent to the political prison camp.

Many of my dad’s friends were executed and sent to the political prison camp, and I myself lost several friends. My close friend who started at the Chinese university with me, he and his entire family were imprisoned in the political prison camp. My sister was in China as well, and her roommate was arrested right in front of her and then sent to the political prison camp in North Korea from China.

That whole incident was an unbelievable story and gave us an unbelievable impression about the regime. Before that we were thinking that we could still change society and make society better. But that whole belief collapsed, and then my family decided to defect.

Mr. Jekielek: How did you discuss that in the family?

Mr. Lee: It’s very unusual to discuss defection or criticize the leader of the society, even with your family members. We were outside of North Korea and in China at the time, but we were still very cautious. We didn’t discuss the defection at home. We went to the park in an open place, and we put all the electronic devices in our car. Then we had a free discussion for a long time.

We concluded that was not the society we want to live in, and this was not the leader we want to serve. We should do something for these people, and for this country. My dad especially had very good intentions. When he served in his position in the country, he was trying to open up the country.

He was trying to improve the economy and the living conditions of the people. He was very supportive of reform, plus opening up the economy and the country. But the execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, destroyed everything that North Korean elite group was envisioning for the society.

Mr. Jekielek: Was that whole execution and removal of that whole faction of people because Kim Jong Un thought they were a threat? Why did it stop all that progress?

Mr. Lee: Kim Jong Un’s uncle was in charge of North Korea’s economic development and making money for the regime. But Kim Jong Un felt threatened by his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and he didn’t like what he was doing. Kim Jong Un’s uncle was making policies for opening up and reform. Kim Jong Un realized that opening up and reform could threaten him and undermine his authority.

That makes sense, because when we have opening and reform, which means opening the society to the world, it would mean that every piece of information could impact Kim Jong Un’s authority, because he’s not a legitimate leader. He should not be the leader in the first place. That’s why he ordered the execution of his own brother in Malaysia.

Mr. Jekielek: Okay, I understand. Your family might have been wondering, “Hey, maybe we’ll be next,” because you were involved in that same vision.

Mr. Lee: Absolutely. Not just my family, but the whole group of North Korean elite members that were thinking that way. He even executed his own uncle. What’s he afraid of? He’s afraid of nothing, and he will execute anyone.

Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me how the people in Pyongyang perceive the rural people, and how the rural people perceive the people in Pyongyang.

Mr. Lee: I engaged with local people when I was in the military, and when I was doing business in the rural areas. The people in the rural areas very much respect Pyongyang. They want to be citizens of Pyongyang, and everything they do is trying to get to the capital city. But, on the other hand, they also have a hatred towards Pyongyang, because North Korean society is all about Pyongyang and the Kim family regime.

Once the people realized they couldn’t make it to the city, and they just felt hatred, “Why is Pyongyang so special? Why doesn’t the regime care about us?” There are all those bad impressions of elite society all over the rural areas. I sensed that, and I felt that. In some areas, people are even throwing stones at the cars with Pyongyang license plates. There is a very harsh attitude in the rural areas toward the capital city.

Mr. Jekielek: What about the residents of Pyongyang, the elites, how do they view the rest of the people?

Mr. Lee: They don’t have any particular views, but they think they, themselves are different. They are a little arrogant and they think, “We are the chosen,” especially the core elite group in Pyongyang. Their grandparents were a very elite group, and from a very young age they were treated specially, so they think they are different. But the ordinary Pyongyang people are not that much different from the rural people. Inside of Pyongyang there is also a division between the general public and the core members of the elite society.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s go back to the famine now. Why do the people in Pyongyang not know what’s happening in the rest of the country?

Mr. Lee: Many people, especially the top people and even the general public in Pyongyang city don’t know what’s happening outside of Pyongyang, because of the isolation of the information. The regime strictly controls the information distribution in Pyongyang city, even from person to person, especially information about the regime. If that information is negative about the society, then the regime thinks it shouldn’t be distributed. Somebody who wants to share or distribute this information with other people could be very severely punished.

Mr. Jekielek: You have contacts both in the city and outside the city, and you’re getting different feedback. Is that the situation?

Mr. Lee: Pretty much. People inside Pyongyang mostly don’t understand the famine. But the rural people reported to us last week that they lost five people to starvation, and that whole family died. Nobody checked on them, and they found them after their death several days later.

Mr. Jekielek: This society functions differently than what most people are used to. I want to establish some of that as we’re talking here. For example, in that BBC documentary, they also talked about using some special methodologies to actually do the communication because of the potential risk. You said this information control is so strict, if people knew that anyone was communicating with the outside, especially you, that would be probably a death sentence.

Mr. Lee: Yes, it’s a high risk. But still, some people want to deliver the truth to the outside world, and people want to share with their loved ones. In the end, information is the key to change society. We all know that. People are risking their life to share this information.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the activists in that documentary mentions that since the Chinese border was sealed during Covid, even the very limited amount of information was reduced even further. He called it the blackest of the black holes, and that black hole has gotten even darker.

Mr. Lee: Yes. Due to the pandemic, the amount of information is limited. But we have North Korean people outside North Korea, and those people keep contact with the people inside Korea. We have different people as sources.

Mr. Jekielek: What is the most important piece of information you could share with us today?

Mr. Lee: First of all, I can confirm some of the famine stories, and it’s very tragic. Several months ago, 19 people in the farming area were dead because of starvation. When we think about a farming area, they shouldn’t be in that situation. They’re producing rice, our food, but the regime took all the rice for the military side. The farmers reported this several times, but they couldn’t get a solution from the regime, and eventually they died. That was a very heartbreaking story.

Secondly, people are executed because of information sharing. Two years ago, the North Korean regime established a law that someone who shared information with people inside North Korea could be executed. I heard that many people were punished just for sharing K-dramas and U.S. movies.

Mr. Jekielek: Nevermind actually sharing on-the-ground reality.

Mr. Lee: Yes. Regardless of the level of the information, they punish people.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to the second point, which was about the nuclear war bluster. You explained that having these big rallies is a method of internal control by focusing on the enemy. Is there actually some increased threat right now?

Mr. Lee: I would say there is no external threat to North Korea, but the regime created that. The regime keeps making up propaganda that the United States and South Korea are always trying to invade North Korea to take away their assets, and take away their life. The regime’s message is, “That’s why we have to be prepared, and we have to utilize our resources to prevent those invasions.” But in reality there’s no external threat, as we all know. But on the inside it’s isolated, so people can’t understand what’s happening on the outside. For many people there is no choice but to believe the regime’s narrative. That’s the reality.

Mr. Jekielek: I definitely want to talk more about that. But do you think there’s any increased threat to South Korea and the U.S.?

Mr. Lee: I don’t see any increased threat because the North Korean regime mainly accuses South Korea and the United States because of military exercises. But it’s general military training and a defense exercise, it’s not an attacking exercise. But the regime believes if the U.S. and South Korea conduct military drills, then it could lead to an attack on North Korea.

They have always said that we need to be prepared. Once there was a big military exercise, and then they mobilized people, had rallies, and a signing campaign to be soldiers. On the other hand, North Korea has maintained its main policy; unifying the South Korean peninsula under Kim Jong Un’s regime. It’s actually stated in the constitution, and that’s the ultimate goal for the regime.

Mr. Jekielek: On one side you have very strict deliberate messaging repeated again and again. On the other hand, you have a vacuum of external information. How many people do you think believe the propaganda?

Mr. Lee: In the 1990s, most people believed what the regime said. But throughout the famine, people accessed a lot of information from outside. They have conducted market activity, and their reliance on the regime has decreased. Gradually, the regime’s control has been undermined. People have lost credibility in the regime. Now, it’s very hard to say. But I have to say, half of the people still believe the regime’s agenda and promises.

Mr. Jekielek: What about the Pyongyang people? Will those believe more or believe less?

Mr. Lee: When I interacted with people when I was in North Korea, it seemed like not many people believed what the regime said. But the entire society’s atmosphere is that if you don’t believe it, you can be punished. You may not believe it, but you cannot share that with other people. That’s the situation. The people who have access to more information, believe less in the regime’s narrative.

Mr. Jekielek: When you were there with your family, did you believe it?

Mr. Lee: Before I came to China to learn outside information, I totally believed what the regime said. I was an elite member, but I didn’t have any access to any outside information. I had to believe it, there was no choice. North Korea is the ultimate propaganda country.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the Korea/China relationship because there is a lot of cross border activity. There are refugees that have escaped and then get forcibly repatriated. We’ve heard about that. There’s the whole sex work industry which Yeonmi Park exposed. Then there’s 100,000 people officially working in China legitimately.

This border closure kept them in China, even though they don’t have visas. There are all of these complications. On top of that, there are IT workers that the regime is cultivating to place in companies outside, partially for nefarious reasons of their own, as opposed to just making money outside the country. To summarize, not a lot of people go out of the country, but the ones that can go back and forth end up in China. Please break that down for us.

Mr. Lee: Since the pandemic, the North Korean regime intentionally closed the border from January, 2020, until now. I would say that they intentionally closed the border because of some benefit. It’s not for the benefit of the people, it’s the benefit for Kim Jong Un himself. In the past, we conducted business with China with a lot of byproducts. People got the benefit from this business, even though most of the money was extracted by the regime. But the people involved in the industries are still making money from this business.

But now, it is total closure, and Kim Jong Un only gets money from those people outside of North Korea, who we call slave workers. They are all officially dispatched from the North Korean regime. I would say 100,000 people are working in China. Because of their visa status, they are all illegally working in China. The UN Security Council resolution in 2017 told every country, “The UN members should send back all North Korean workers to North Korea,” because those monies exclusively contribute to North Korea’s nuclear and weapon programs.

But China didn’t follow the rules and take responsibility, especially because China is a member of the National Security Council. But North Korea knows that if they close the border China cannot send North Korean workers back to North Korea. Therefore, let them stay in China and let them make millions of dollars every year, regardless of their willingness.

So many of the workers sent information and even wrote handwritten letters to us and other people saying, “We want to go back because we want to see our families.” For three or four years, they haven’t been able to see their families.

They worked so hard, up to 12 to 14 hours a day in harsh conditions. They couldn’t actually earn any money because the regime kept all the money. They said, “When you come back to North Korea, we will give it to you.” But none of them received the actual money they made, they only got a small portion of the money. Most of the North Korean workers inside China now are very frustrated, and they want to defect.

It’s a very similar situation with the IT workers as well. They’re highly trained and skilled people. They make millions of dollars every year hacking cryptocurrency and hacking banks. They also outsource work. They’re making websites and making animations for different companies. Recently, I heard that most of their clients are from the U.S. Their clients in the U.S. didn’t even know they were North Korean IT workers because there are a number of different involvements and fake IDs.

Mr. Jekielek: Shell companies and so forth.

Mr. Lee: Shell companies in Hong Kong and outside.

Mr. Jekielek: What about the refugees? There are actually people who have escaped North Korea and ended up in China. There are also sex workers, and that’s a whole dark human trafficking industry as well.

Mr. Lee: I didn’t know about the sex workers, because of the information isolation. That information couldn’t reach us when I was in North Korea, and I learned about it after I defected. It’s very heartbreaking, especially Yeonmi Park’s story and all the suffering she went through. It’s unimaginable. I would say it’s not just Yeonmi, there are thousands of people who are in the same situation right now.

During the famine, many, many North Korean escapees left North Korea and settled down in China. Of course, they didn’t have any identification. They couldn’t register their ID in China. They were living illegally with their Chinese families. Many of them were originally sold as a sex workers and then as slaves. Some women married Chinese people and they gave birth. Several months ago, Chinese authorities began rigorously looking for these people to arrest them and send them back to North Korea.

Some Chinese police take bribes, put them on a list, and then two or three months later just arrest them again. The families are obviously frustrated with this situation. They have two or three children. What if the moms repatriated to North Korea and couldn’t see their families in the future? That’s what the two countries are doing to their own people.

Also, there are two types of escapees in China, those people who escape North Korea because of the economic situation. There are also those people who are working for officials in China, and they were captured by the Chinese police when they tried to escape.

Mr. Jekielek: Just to be clear, these are people in China already, and when they try to escape, they’re captured by the Chinese authorities?

Mr. Lee: Yes. Recently, many North Korean workers tried to escape. Many almost succeeded in their escape, but the Chinese authorities arrested and interrogated them. They keep them in the detention center, and now they’re ready to send them back if the border is reopened.

Mr. Jekielek: The workers are trying to escape to South Korea, is that right?

Mr. Lee: Most of them were trying to escape to South Korea.

Mr. Jekielek: The one line from this BBC documentary that really hit home is when the woman says, “I want to be in a society where we don’t have to spy on each other.”

Mr. Lee: That’s actually a very sad thing. Totalitarian and authoritarian societies share similar features, like people spying on each other and reporting on each other, so that the regime gets the benefit and punishes people for their actions. For example, your neighbors can spy on your family. If your family expressed disagreement with the regime, that just one word could be delivered by your neighbor to the ruling party. Because of that word, and because of that action, your entire family could be thrown into the political prison camp.

Mr. Jekielek: I still find this difficult to fathom, but with these prison camps, it’s not necessarily just the accused people sent there. It could be three generations of people.

Mr. Lee: Yes, of course. That’s just the most notorious system in North Korea. It’s a guilt by association system, which means that all the generations have to be punished in that system. If your grandfather becomes a traitor to the nation, your grandson must live in the political prison camp. I heard that even babies who were born in the political prison camp have to spend their whole life in political prison camp. Actually in 2010, my neighbor and his entire family was imprisoned in the political prison camp.

He was the political ambassador in Beijing, and the charge against him was just several meetings with Kim Jong Un’s brother. Later, we found out that the entire family vanished. Our neighbor told us that even their children and grandchildren were in the political prison camp. They have four children, and then they have grandchildren.

The third son’s child is only two years old, and that two-year-old baby was also sent to the political prison camp. The only survivor of that family was a little five-year-old girl, the granddaughter, because she had a different last name. The regime forcefully divorced the daughter and the son-in-law, and then the daughter kept the son-in-law’s last name. That’s why that child is the lone survivor of the entire family. Other than that, the whole family was sent to the political prison camp. That happened a lot.

We assume there are 200,000 people imprisoned in political prison camps, and 90 percent of them are from the elite class. The North Korean regime doesn’t put just the general public in the facility. They put elite members who used to be loyal to the country. Most of them are political victims of the regime. The regime thinks they are a threat to the regime.

Mr. Jekielek: How does the North Korean economy work?

Mr. Lee: The economy is already broken. It has already collapsed. But the people made their own life through market activity. At the domestic level, they achieve it through the market system. But when it comes to the top level, the regime can procure money from resources like labor workers, IT workers, and gold smuggling. We can’t call that an economy. It’s more like one gang leader making his money and distributing the money with his own clan.

Mr. Jekielek: The rest is people effectively functioning on a black market. When analysts say that the regime is highly dependent on money from China, are they talking about IT workers and all these other different workers, or is there some other source of money as well?

Mr. Lee: Before the pandemic, almost 90 percent of trade was with China. Analysts say the reliance on China is through imports and exports. The North Korean regime sells the natural resources to China, and then they get the goods from China, so that is the import and export exchange. China is a bigger market than Russia, but Kim Jong Un didn’t like China. Many years ago he actually gave all business people an order, “We want to utilize the Russian market more than the Chinese market.”

We thought that Kim Jong Un was crazy. There’s nothing we can trade with Russia at the moment. When we do business between North Korea and China, it mostly involves front money. Chinese investors and business people put up the money first so that they can get the resources from North Korea. The Chinese region obviously supports the North Korean regime. They provide them with refined oil every year. They let the North Korean regime conduct smuggling and anything else for the survival of the regime. They don’t want the North Korean regime to collapse.

Generally, Chinese business people think they can make money and they do a lot of business with the regime. North Korea has natural resources, so they can get th