20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, China, Hyeonseo Lee, memoir, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, William Collins

‘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.

Author, Blaine Harden, Book review, Mantle Books, memoir, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Escape from Camp 14’ by Blaine Harden


Non-fiction; Kindle edition; Mantle Books; 256 pages; 2012.

A couple of years ago I read Barbara Demick’s award-winning Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, an extraordinary account of six ordinary citizens living in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 shows the other side of the coin: what it is like to live in — and then escape from — one of North Korea’s highly secretive labour camps. Indeed, Shin In Guen (now known as Shin Dong-hyuk) is the only person born in a North Korean labour camp to escape and tell his story.

Life as a slave

Shin was born “a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence” in a concentration camp that the North Korean government says does not exist. The notorious Camp 14 is located in central North Korea, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, and is so large — 30 miles long by 15 miles wide — that it has farms, mines and factories. It is home to 15,000 prisoners, most of whom have been sent there without any judicial process…

… and many die there without learning the charges against them. They are taken from their homes, usually at night, by the Bowibu, the National Security Agency. Guilt by association is legal in North Korea. A wrongdoer is often imprisoned with his parents and children. Kim Il Sung laid down the law in 1972: ‘[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.’

The book, which is based on interviews with Shin along with a Korean-language memoir he wrote (and had published in South Korean in 2007), is divided into three parts: Shin’s life and upbringing in the camp; his death-defying escape; and his new life in America.

Probably the most eye-opening aspect for any Western reader is realising that these camps exist (the author points out that North Korean labour camps have been around 12 times longer than the Nazi death camps) and that so few people know about them. The living conditions are horrendous — food is in short supply, health care is poor, accommodation is basic, there is no running water or electricity — and everyone is treated less than human and below the law.

The following quote paints a distressing portrait of daily life in the camps:

A few prisoners are publicly executed every year. Others are beaten to death or secretly murdered by guards, who have almost complete license to abuse and rape prisoners. Most prisoners tend crops, mine coal, sew military uniforms, or make cement while subsisting on a near-starvation diet of corn, cabbage and salt. They lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they enter their forties, they hunch over at the waist. Issued a set of clothes once or twice a year, they commonly work and sleep in filthy rags, living without soap, socks, gloves, underclothes, or toilet paper. Twelve- to fifteen-hour workdays are mandatory until prisoners die, usually of malnutrition-related illnesses, before they turn fifty.

Shin was born into this environment and knew no other life — for him it was normal. He spent “twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family and tortured him over a fire” before he decided to escape.

A life of freedom

The book comes into its own when the tale of Shin’s escape is explained in heart-hammering detail. Reading it, it is hard not to think that it is all fiction, for surely the story is too surreal to be true. And even when Shin does make it across the border to China, those first few months on the run do not offer the blissful happiness of freedom you might expect — every day is agony, knowing that at any point he could be recaptured by the authorities. In fact, life is like this for almost two years, because that’s how long it takes for Shin to reach the relative safety of South Korea, where defectors benefit from special support networks set up to help North Koreans.

But it is the final part of the book that is perhaps the most heartbreaking, because Shin is so clearly traumatised and psychologically damaged by his upbringing that he struggles to adjust to his new life. Even though he manages to get himself to Southern California, where he becomes a senior ambassador for a human rights group, he has problems trusting people and making friends, does not understand the concepts of love or mercy, and finds it difficult to settle down long enough to stay in a  job or make a home — although there are plenty of support networks there to help him.

And while it probably didn’t help he had a journalist badgering him for this book, Shin’s story is such an important — and unique — one that it really had to be told.

In its matter-of-fact tone, Escape from Camp 14 reveals the full horror of North Korea’s human rights record. It is, by turns, shocking, distressing and scandalous. I read it with a growing sense of anger and outrage but came away from it feeling nothing but empathy and admiration for Shin’s courage and stoicism. This is a compelling and thought-provoking read, but I can’t help but wonder how many other North Koreans will never be quite as fortunate as Shin…

Author, Barbara Demick, Book review, Granta, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick


Non-fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 314 pages; 2010.

North Korea is one of those intensely secretive countries that most of us know very little about. Media coverage is virtually non-existent, unless it’s something to do with nuclear weapons, George W. Bush’s “Axis-of-evil, or leader Kim Jong-il, the latter usually covered in a humorous isn’t-he-kooky? kind of way.

But in recent weeks, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has opened its doors to the Western media, albeit in a very controlled way, in order to show the world that Kim Jong-un, the leader’s youngest son, is now the leader-in-waiting. This has provided a brief, but fascinating glimpse of a unique country, where conformity, not individuality, is the guiding principle.

The footage above is the North Korea that the North Korean Government want you to see. But Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy, which won this year’s BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, is filled with all the stuff they don’t want you to know about.

This is a nation where citizens are encouraged to spy upon one another; where they are forbidden from listening or watching any media other than those run by the state; where every household must keep a portrait of the president on display; where they are so cut off from the rest of the world they truly believe the motto that they have “nothing to envy”.

Demick, an American journalist, was a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covering both North Korea and South Korea, in 2004. She was based in Soul, but made several trips to the North, and conducted extensive interviews with North Koreans who had defected. It is from these interviews that Demick shapes her book: a non-fiction account of six ordinary citizens living in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

The book has all the hallmarks of a great literary novel, because Demick uses narrative techniques to interweave the individual stories of six main characters living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.

The following description of the North Korean urban environment sets the scene:

There is almost no signage, few motor vehicles. Private ownership of cars is largely illegal, not that anyone can afford them. You seldom even see tractors, only scraggly oxen dragging plows. The houses are simple, utilitarian and monochromatic. There is little that predates the Korean War. Most of the housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s from cement block and limestone, doled out to people based on their job and rank. In the cities there are “pigeon coops”, one-room units in low-rise apartment buildings, while in the countryside, people typically live in single-story buildings called “harmonicas”, rows of one-room houses, stuck together like little boxes that make up the chambers of a harmonica. Occasionally, door frames and window sashes are painted a startling turquoise, but mostly everything is whitewashed or gray.

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea.

The story initially focuses on two young lovers, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who kept their relationship secret for six years but did not hold hands until three years later. In a society where sexual relationships outside of marriage are frowned upon and sex-education is non-existent, it took another six years before they shared their first kiss. Mi-Ran says when she eventually fled North Korea she was “twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived”.

Further into the story we meet the indomitable Mrs Song, a factory worker, mother of four and model citizen. Two-thirds of the way into the book we are introduced to her oldest daughter, the wayward Oak-hee, who is trapped in a terrible marriage and believes that defection is her only hope of beginning a new life. By this time Mrs Song’s mother-in-law, husband and son have died as a result of the famine that swept through the country in the 1990s.

There are two more characters: Dr Kim, a young medical doctor, and Kim Hyuck, a homeless teenager who grew up in an orphanage when his father abandoned him to marry his second wife. (Hyuck’s mother died unexpectedly when he was just three years old.)

Demick paints each of these characters as incredibly resilient people with strong survival instincts. By tracing their lives over a 20- to 30-year period, she is able to demonstrate how their ingrained behaviour to obey the Communist regime slowly gets worn away, to the point where each comes to realise that the only way out is to flee. Their tales of escape are heart-hammering, and heart-warming, by turn.

Interestingly, Demick explains that defection was very low: only 923 citizens defected from the North to the South in the roughly 50-year period between the end of the Korean War and 1998. But that began to change in the late 1990s, brought about primarily by the famine that swept the country and the growing prosperity of neighbouring China, which became more and more of a temptation to those Koreans grappling to survive with no food, no money and often no employment.

The thing that amazed me most about this book, was less the glimpses of life lived in a Totalitarian society (it’s no exaggeration to say this is George Orwell’s 1984 writ large, the only thing missing seems to be the “two-minutes hate”), but the devastating impact of the nation’s food shortages. According to Demick, this resulted in some 10 per cent of the North Korean population dying of starvation — in 1998 the estimated casualties totalled 600,000 to 2 million.

Demick painstakingly reveals the desperate acts so many people had to carry out to find food. It makes for harrowing reading at times. I particularly felt for schoolteacher Mi-ran, who watches her young students wasting away in front of her eyes, knowing there is nothing she can do to save them from starvation.

The resulting collapse of the socialist food distribution system led to highly illegal business enterprises being set up, mainly in the form of food vendors such as butchers and bakers. Mrs Song, ever-resourceful, set up a flourishing trade in home-baked cookies. It says so much about her undying spirit, and her desire to keep forging ahead despite extremely adverse circumstances, that you begin to wonder if she’s really true and not just figment of Demick’s imagination.

The book is so jam-packed with intriguing facts that I couldn’t even begin to list them all here, although several stick in my mind:

  • electricity is in such short supply that the lights are switched off every evening, plunging the whole of North Korea into darkness (this Google image illustrates it perfectly);
  • medical doctors are supposed to act selflessly by donating their own blood for transfusions and their own skin for grafts, as well as growing their own cotton to make bandages;
  • religion is forbidden because everyone must devote themselves to the cult of Kim Jong-il and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea; and
  • most North Korean clothes are made from a unique fabric called Vinalon, which is made from limestone and anthracite.

Nothing to Envy is a truly astonishing book, and this review cannot do it the justice it deserves. If you’re intrigued by a nation that fell off the map of the developed world and want to know how ordinary citizens have endured extraordinary circumstances, then this book should not be missed. It’s definitely been the highlight of my reading year so far.