Seongmin Lee Q&A Part 1: Journey from North Korea to Columbia University

2018 North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient Seongmin Lee describes his journey from running a business in North Korea and working for the regime to enrolling in Columbia University and goals for the future.

Jeff Kim: Seongmin, tell us a little about yourself.

Seongmin Lee: I am a North Korean defector. I defected to South Korea in 2009 and lived there for a few years. I came to the United States in 2016. I am currently studying at Columbia University in New York. 

JK: How and why did you escape from North Korea?

SL: There were a couple of reasons why I decided to leave, but the most important reason was family. I had an older sister who left for China when she was young, but she couldn’t return to North Korea because of the government’s policy. We had lived separately for 13 years, and there was no way for our family to reunite [except] to go to South Korea. Another reason was [being] born in a border city in Ryanggang province. I had many opportunities to observe what was taking place across the river in China. On the North Korean side, there’s no power, it’s completely dark, and the Chinese side is very bright. It raised many questions, and I started learning more about China and started a cross-border business. The business eventually expanded to a very organized business that enabled me to learn about North Korea’s society in comparison to China. Also during that time, the last part of my life in North Korea, I had an opportunity to work with a government agency, the Ministry of People’s Security, a police department. I saw corruption and the darkness of the North Korean [leadership].

JK: You first went to South Korea and later decided to come to the United States. What was South Korea like for a North Korean defector, and why did you decide to come to the United States?

SL: I came to South Korea in early 2010, a few months after I left North Korea. [South Korea] was incredibly developed, much more so than I imagined. I had some vague knowledge about South Korea before arriving partly due to the cross-border business I ran along the North Korean-Chinese border and partly due to South Korean television programs that I secretly watched in North Korea, but none of it was much help. 

Life was definitely not like the TV shows I watched. There were a lot of challenges and new things to learn, from typing on a computer and navigating the subway system to understanding a professor who spoke English in class, which was incomprehensible to me. But the South Korean government generously provided North Korean defectors like me with opportunities such as education. Later I had a chance to work at the Ministry of Unification as a student journalist. 

My interest in coming to the United States began around 2013, especially after I returned from an internship in Canada. To me, coming to the United States was not like coming to any foreign country. It was the country that I was once taught to fight against through the lens of the North Korean dictatorial regime. Thus, in freedom, I thought learning and understanding what was for me the most misunderstood country would be my starting point for learning about the rest of the world that I was once effectively prohibited from learning about. In a sense, I transitioned from the world’s least free country to the freest one, and I’m still overwhelmed at times with the magnitude and layers of freedom there are. 

In a sense, I transitioned from the world’s least free country to the freest one, and I’m still overwhelmed at times with the magnitude and layers of freedom there are.

In South Korea, I [aspired] to one day be a bridge to dismantle the isolationism in my home country and link the 25 million North Koreans still there with Americans. Since then, I endeavored to use every opportunity I had to prepare for [enrollment] in an American university. In 2014, I applied to Columbia University, and the following year, my miracle started to unfold: I received an admissions letter from the school. Since 2016, I’ve been studying here at Columbia University.

JK: What are you studying?

SL: I’m currently studying Political Science. But as is often the case, the areas I’ve been studying involve multiple disciplines including economics, statistics, music, art, history, biodiversity, and politics. Every day has been incredible since I came to Columbia, as I’ve been learning a great deal about the free world. I will begin my master’s program at Columbia’s SIPA (School of International and Public Affairs) starting this fall, where I will specialize in international security policy and management. I believe the education I gain here in America will help me achieve my dreams.

JK: What’s next for you?

SL: If I can frame my future, I want to first complete my master’s [degree] at SIPA. In five years, I hope to work at a government institution such as the State Department or at an international organization like the United Nations, at a post whose tasks heavily involve the Korean peninsula. Regarding the possibility of going back to North Korea, this is [something] I have been thinking about for a while. Should I go back to North Korea to help on the ground? From my perspective, if this is something I have to do, I will be happy for the chance to return. But in this increasingly globalized world, there ought to be many different ways to constructively help North Korean people moving forward even without physically being in the country.

JK: What does it mean to you to receive this scholarship?

SL: Possibility as well as belief. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a student has been securing the resources I need every semester to cover tuition and school-related materials. Thanks to receiving the North Korean Freedom Scholarship this year, I now have a good possibility of completing my studies for the academic year. The Bush Center, its donors, and its board members have invested tremendously in North Korean defector students like me living in the United States. It is my hope that each of us works toward our callings to become constructive members of the community here in the United States. I believe we will play a substantial role in helping North Koreans and people elsewhere in need.

Jeff Kim is a Bush Institute Human Freedom Initiative consultant.