A North Korean defector and activist has called on China to accept more freely the defectors who have fled Kim Jong Un’s regime, criticizing the Chinese government for sending a majority of the defectors it catches back to their home country. 

“China is the place we have to cross, but here many people are caught, less than 50 percent will succeed,” Hyeonseo Lee said, speaking in English to a non-Chinese audience at a book festival she was attending to promote a memoir.

Defectors who successfully escape North Korea’s borders typically keep a low profile after they depart. Those who do speak out often do so in anonymity, from places like South Korea where the risk of reprisal or repercussion for family members are lower.

Yet Lee, who fled North Korea in the 1990s and has been living in South Korea for years, decided to speak out at a televised event inside China, the only country that counts North Korea among its economic and military allies.

Lee, an outspoken activist who has used a number of prominent media outlets to speak out against North Korea and about her experiences, has not said much about China’s role in North Korea’s efforts to limit defections. The book she’d visited China to promote, “The Girl With Seven Names,” makes frequent mention of how she spent years living in fear of Chinese authorities.

Lee made her remarks against the advice of South Korean officials, who fear it could have an adverse effect on relations between China and South Korea.  Agence France-Presse reported this is the first time a North Korean defector has spoken out against the Chinese government on Chinese media, which frequently censors or limits negative coverage of North Korea.

“They are telling me I had to be careful in China, saying only talk about North Korea, don’t ever touch China, especially don’t touch the Chinese government,” she said.

“No defector made a public speech in China, but I have to make a stand and tell Chinese people the truth,” Hyeonseo later wrote on Twitter.