The North Korean Young Leaders Assembly is a group of North Korean defectors and professionals in international relations, law, architecture, IT, cinema, journalism, politics, and education. In July 2023, the group met with U.S. policymakers and think tanks in Washington to make North Korea-related proposals.
The following is an excerpt on the event written by So-hyun Kim for The Korea Herald.
Lee Seo-hyun grew up as a proud North Korean elite, always thinking about what she could do to help make her country a better place.
That was until she saw North Korean agents abruptly take her best friend and roommate Su-jeong away from their school dormitory in Beijing in December 2013. A text message from Su-jeong that she would not be able to come back and that she was throwing away her phone at a highway rest stop was the last she heard from her. Lee later learned that Su-jeong’s father had been executed for his association with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, who had been purged earlier that month, and that her family had been sent to a camp for political prisoners.
Kim Jong-un continued to brutally execute people who worked under Jang, beginning a reign of terror that tightened his grip over the regime. Under a system of guilt by association, if a North Korean defects or is accused of other treason, the entire family can be sent to a political prison.
“The North Korean elite live under extreme surveillance, are forced to be loyal to the Kim regime out of fear and live every day like they are walking on thin ice,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Herald on a video call on Sunday.
“Many (North Korean elites) are now aware of the problems of the country’s system, and know that it has to change, but they cannot initiate change because of guilt by association. I understand this as I have experience of being held hostage in the North while my family was overseas.”
Lee defected to South Korea in 2014 with her family while they were living in China, and moved to the US in 2016. Having studied foreign languages at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and finance at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian, China, she is now doing a master’s program in international relations at Columbia University in New York.