Hyeonseo Lee thought her country was the greatest in the world after she was brainwashed, but once she started seeing the poverty and repression, she realized she had to escape.
During a TED conference in Long Beach, Calif., Lee spoke about her journey.
She said that she grew up believing that North Korea was the best place to live, singing patriotic songs to convey her pride.
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"When I was seven years old, I saw my first public execution - but I thought my life in North Korea was normal," she said.
While the execution did not completely shock her at the time, she was left speechless by the series of famines the country experienced, starting in 1995.
Her mother read her a letter from the sister of one of her colleagues, which said:
"When you read this, all five family members will not exist in this world, because we haven't eaten for the past two weeks. We are lying on the floor together, and our bodies are so weak we are ready to die."
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And later, she saw a woman who looked dead lying on the ground with a starving child in her arms.
"Nobody helped them, because they were so focused on taking care of themselves and their families," Lee said.
She said it was then that she decided to leave the country and move to China.
It was a difficult decision, as many who attempt to escape end up dead or they end up caught, leading them to be arrested and imprisoned or executed.
Luckily, Lee made a safe escape. She hid her true identity while she lived in China, but was always worried she would be caught. Once, police interrogated her about her identity after they suspected she was North Korean. Her Chinese was good enough to fool them.
In 2008, she moved to South Korea into an apartment while she received a college education.
She then was able to get her entire family out of North Korea after a series of setbacks.
Lee now campaigns for more international support for North Korean defectors and their families, hoping to help them reintegrate into the world.
Every year, an average of 2,400 people escape the country.