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Any North Korean who escapes does so accepting the risk that their whole family might wind up in a labor camp if the government catches on. Mr. Lee (who used a fake name and would only Skype us with his face obscured by shadows) had to craft an elaborate web of lies before he fled the country. Our translator described it as essentially the same thing as telling your parents you're "staying the night with a friend" so you can go out and party. Only instead of getting grounded, your entire family is worked to death in a labor camp if someone finds out.
Pretend there's a joke here, and not a sobering reminder of unspeakable tragedy.
Mr. Lee made his escape two years ago. Fortunately, smuggling refugees out of the Kim family's own personal murderous Disney World isn't just something that happens from time to time -- it's a bona fide international industry. Lee's sister set him up with the man-smugglers and paid for everything, because people actually living in North Korea don't tend to have the kind of money anyone else might care to use. And if you think it's just a matter of someone sneaking you across the border to South Korea, think again. Even if that's your destination, you have to take the long way if you don't want to get shot several thousand times before you even see the fence.
Mr. Lee was smuggled out through a network of brokers, via a journey consisting of hiking, buses, and cars from North Korea into China, then to Vietnam, and then to South Korea. Each portion of the trip had a different broker who specialized in smuggling North Koreans along a set route. Mr. Lee followed each broker's instructions and had to trust that none of them would deliver him right back to the Thought Police. At various points along the trip, he'd call home to say "I'm safe in Beijing" or "I'm safe in Saigon." Once his sister heard from him, she'd wire the next portion of cash, and on it went.
When the cellphones started coming bundled with Snake, he knew he was on his way to freedom.
Obviously, the business of smuggling North Koreans is illegal in North Korea, but it's also illegal in every single country along that route. If you can make it to South Korea, you're safe, but the broker networks are illegal there, too, so it's not like there's any quality control or ability to complain if they, say, abduct you into slavery. As the backer in South Korea, you risk paying thousands and thousands of dollars for the privilege of having a loved one betrayed or murdered.
But that didn't happen. Mr. Lee was delivered into a part of the world with soap operas instead of mass games, Internet gaming cafes instead of labor camps, and the sport of competitive eating instead of regular famine. That's when he found ...
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"It was just a completely different reality," said Mr. Lee. In North Korea, you're taught that countries with capitalism are filled with people dying in the streets. Even though he was skeptical of this (he'd seen plenty of American cities on DVD, and the car chases usually didn't have to steer around piles of starving vagrants), he still had the feeling that capitalism was "a bad school of thought." He was shocked to see that South Koreans get to live pretty much as they please and quickly experienced the new concept of actually getting paid for his work.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
It turns out most people prefer not being literal slaves of their government.
Likewise, Mr. Lee arrived with a pretty negative attitude toward South Korean women, after decades of seeing them portrayed as sex-obsessed airheads. He'd been led to believe the women of South Korea would be made up like "clowns or prostitutes" -- basically, state propaganda had him convinced that the girls of Seoul look exactly like rich people in The Hunger Games.
He was also surprised about human rights. Like, the very concept that humans have rights, and that they can assert them to their government. The North Korean government's solution to the problem of "human rights" was just not telling their people the subject existed. You can't demand something that you didn't know was a thing.
Pierre Bassard / AFP / Getty
"Wait, you mean not doing this is an option?"
Keep in mind, Mr. Lee had grown up being taught that mere curiosity about his leaders was a moral failing. That's why arriving in South Korea also brought some shocking realizations about the Kim family. He hadn't believed all the crazy propaganda about Kim Jong Il's accomplishments, but the real facts of the Glorious Leader's life were far different from what he imagined. "During famines, the state propaganda said Kim Jong Il was suffering through the worst of it with us, subsisting on only a bowl of rice a day." The reality is that while it's impossible to say how much rice Kim ate during the famine, we do know he spent $600,000 a year on his personal brandy stash.
If this were a movie, the evil iron-fisted dictator would get his comeuppance before the closing credits. In real life, the Kim family has been oppressing their starving little country for 65 goddamned years, with no end in sight, and getting steadily crazier with each passing day.
Robert Evans is an editorial manager at Cracked, and leads the personal experience article team. You can reach him here if you have a tip or a whistle to blow. Michael Malice lives here on the Internet, and you can learn more about his unauthorized autobiography of Kim Jong Il here.
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