The girl with seven names is finding it hard these days to contact relatives in Stalinist North Korea on the underground mobile phone link defectors have used for years.
Hyeonseo Lee is also increasingly worried about her personal security since the July publication of the best-selling memoir about her escape from North Korea, “The Girl with Seven Names”.
Defectors living in South Korea contact relatives in the North through Chinese mobile phones that are smuggled across the border. They communicate through transmission towers on the Chinese side of the border.
It’s all arranged through brokers on the Chinese side, who also help smuggle money from the defectors to their relatives.
North Korea, however, has been cracking down on this lifeline, using phone signal detectors and interference devices, Lee said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The signals can reveal the location of the speaker if the conversation lasts much longer than a minute.
Lee arranged for many of her family members to join her in exile after her own escape in 1998, but she still talks to an aunt there.
“Right now the signal is not so good. I can’t hear their voice clearly … And my aunt says after a minute, oh my god, we have to turn off the phone now we’re being monitored.”
The aunt was sent to a labour camp for a few months last year, accused of trying to escape. “She was reported by her best friend. That’s how this regime works,” Lee said.