‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John)

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; William Collins; 320 pages; 2016.

Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee is an inspiring and harrowing true life story about escaping a brutal regime and then having the courage to get your family out too.

Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea. She came from a relatively comfortable family. Her father was in the military and her mother smuggled goods from across the Chinese border and made a living selling them, so there was always food on the table — even during the Great Famine, where one million North Koreans died of starvation — and new clothes to wear.

But not long after Hyeonseo’s father died, she made a fateful — and terribly naive — decision: to cross the border and visit relatives in China for a few days, thinking she could return without any consequences. She was just 17. Sadly, she was never able to go back.

A perilous search for freedom

The book charts Hyeonseo’s journey to freedom. It follows her life as an illegal immigrant in China, where she spent 10 years working low-level jobs, until she was able to get herself to South Korea, where she claimed asylum.

But throughout this time, always looking over her shoulder, changing her name (yes, seven times), learning Mandarin to fit in, buying a fake ID and keeping one step ahead of the authorities, she was constantly aware that she had left her mother and younger brother behind, whom she missed terribly. She vowed to get her mother out (her brother was engaged to be married, so it was more complicated to help him), but through a bizarre set of circumstances managed to smuggle both of them out.

Their perilous 2,000 mile journey from North Korea to Vietnam, where they planned to claim asylum in the South Korean embassy, was supposed to take around a week: it took more than six months and involved all kinds of dangers, including immersion in the shady world of people smugglers, brokers and corrupt officials.

It didn’t help that Vietnam had supposedly turned hostile to helping North Koreans and a last-minute diversion to Laos put the whole escape plan at risk. There was the ever-present threat of deportation back to North Korea, where imprisonment or public execution awaited.

A fabulous adventure story

The Girl with Seven Names is a truly gripping read. It has the air of a fabulous adventure story; sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s true because so many horrendous things happen along the way. But Hyeonseo’s unwavering faith in herself, in helping her mother and of forging a new life in a new culture is inspiring.

And while her story highlights the worst of humanity — the repressive and truly cruel nature of the North Korean state, the immorality of the people smugglers and the gangs determined to make a buck out of other people’s misery — it also presents a refreshing look at the kindness of others, for it is only through the random act of one man — a Westerner in Laos — that Hyeonseo was able to get her family to South Korea because he gave her the money she needed exactly when she needed it.

My most basic assumptions about human nature were being overturned. In North Korea I’d learned from my mother that to trust anyone outside the family was risky and dangerous. In China I’d lived by cunning since I was a teenager, lying to hide the truth of my identity in order to survive. On the only occasion I’d trusted people I’d got into a world of trouble with the Shenyang police. Not only did I believe that humans were selfish and base, I also knew that plenty of them were actually bad – content to destroy lives for their own gain. I’d seen Korean-Chinese expose North Korean escapees to the police in return for money. I’d known people who’d been trafficked by other humans as if they were livestock. That world was familiar to me. All my life, random acts of kindness had been so rare that they’d stick in my memory, and I’d think: how strange. What Dick had done changed my life. He showed me that there was another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so, and where callousness was unusual, not the norm. Dick had treated me as if I were his family, or an old friend. Even now, I do not fully grasp his motivation. But from the day I met him the world was a less cynical place. I started feeling warmth for other people. This seemed so natural, and yet I’d never felt it before.

Hyesonseo now campaigns for North Korean human rights and refugee issues. You can see a TED talk she gave in 2013 about her story:

If you liked this, you might also like:

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick:  an award-winning book, probably the best about what it is like to live in North Korea, that tells the individual stories of six people living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it last year after reading this piece by Hyeonseo Lee on the Five Books website.

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13 thoughts on “‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John)

  1. The first part of the book explains what it’s like to grow up in North Korea and how, as an aetheist state, it brainwashes its citizens into believing Kim Jung-il is a god and that all citizens must have undying devotion to him and to him alone. The regime turns people against each other, so they become informers, and there is no concept of kindness or forgiveness. It’s really shocking. I still think Barbara Demick’s book is the best one to explain all this though…

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  2. I’d really like to read this. I read Suki Kim’s book Without You There is No Us which is about her infiltration into North Korea. Sounds like a great companion book to that one.

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  3. I tried reading another escape from N Korea book, A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa, but found it unreadable. I’m not a fan of dictatorships but I can’t help suspecting that some of these books are financed by the CIA, as was Solzhenitsyn. Even prison has its light moments but not seemingly N. Korea.

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    • I think there’s a lot of dross out there… these books are now a dime a dozen whereas 10 years ago none had been written. I do highly recommend Nothing to Envy, which was one of the first published about the regime’s impact on ordinary citizens. It remains one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

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  4. Pingback: 20 books of summer 2018 recap – Reading Matters

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