Escape stories click with S. Koreans

BREAKING STEREOTYPE: Son Bom Hyang's defection story has over two million views on YouTube. She fled from North Korea at age 10.


    Oct 13, 2016

    Escape stories click with S. Koreans


    A TRENDY haircut, eyebrow piercings and a tattoo sleeve on his arm - nothing about online personality Lee Pyung's current appearance betrays the fact he was born under a totalitarian regime.

    But he was, Lee reveals in his live webcast series - 23 years ago in the city of Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea.

    He made it to South Korea in 2004 after bribing North Korean border guards, crossing into China, being imprisoned there, hiding in the Mongolian plains and being picked up by the National Intelligence Service at the Korean Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia - alone at the age of 11.

    In Seoul, Lee reunited with his parents who had defected when he was three.

    He is one of a handful of young North Korean defectors who have recently begun telling their stories on Afreeca, an online streaming platform where broadcasters - called broadcasting jockeys or BJs - earn money according to the number of viewers.

    He has received questions from viewers, including "Do North Koreans really eat human flesh?" and "Is everybody trained to be a spy?" which he called "outrageous".

    Lee began streaming online because he "wanted to change the stereotypes of North Korean defectors, especially among the younger generation of South Koreans".

    He felt that South Koreans are prejudiced against defectors, viewing them as "poor" or "fanatical communists".

    Since his online debut in May, Lee has made on average five million won (S$6,150) per month, with last month's earnings soaring much higher.

    His YouTube video detailing how he escaped has attracted over a million views.

    Some of his stories relay the more gruesome reality of the world's most isolated state.

    As a child, Lee frequently witnessed public executions in his schoolyard,

    "I've seen countless bodies.

    "Seeing people dying, seeing corpses was an everyday thing," he said.

    Son Bom Hyang, 29, is another defector who has been active as a BJ for two years.

    Her turbulent story of how she escaped at age 10 - which involves imprisonment in China, a sibling who died and stealing food from fields to stave off hunger - has over two million views on YouTube.

    Son, too, addresses the audiences' many curiosities, which range from "Do you really have portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in every household?" (yes) to "What kind of TV shows do you have there?"

    But Son additionally uploads clips of how she has settled into her life in the South, often engaging in "meokbang" - where hosts broadcast themselves eating food -with her husband of three years.

    "In live streams, we can ask defectors things we're curious about and get immediate, honest answers," said Park So Hee, a 25-year-old university student who has seen many of Lee's broadcasts.

    "I used to think defectors were brainwashed people I had nothing in common with.

    "But now I understand that they came here because they wanted to. They like the same things I do."

    There are some 30,000 North Korean defectors in the country as of June, according to the Unification Ministry.