Book Review: Hyeonseo Lee- The Girl with the Seven Names- Escape from North Korea
The autobiographic book “The Girl with Seven Names- Escape from North Korea” by Hyeonseo Lee describes the life of the author in North Korea, her escape from North Korea and the escape of her family. The book was first published in Great Britain in 2015 by William Collins Publishing. It is available in paperback for 8,99 € (Paperback ISBN: 978-0-00-755485-0). This autobiography has a total of 304 pages and is divided into three parts.
After her own escape from North Korea in 1997 and asylum in South Korea in 2008 she began attending meetings of the organization People for Succesful Corean Reunification (PSCORE). She started speaking about the human rights abuses in North Korea in a South Korean TV show called Now on my Way to Meet You and was chosen to speak at the TED Conference in February 2013. In 2014 the author was invited to speak in front of the United Nations Commission of Enquiry on Human Rights in North Korea. Afterwards even the North Korean government saw her as a threat.
I wanted to read a book about the escape from North Korea as the divided country resembles so much of the German divided history. Also, I wanted to get a feeling what it was like to grow up in such s strict communist country with a dictatorship, as our generation often takes the freedom we have as granted. Moreover, I watched Hyeonseo Lee´s inspirational TED talk which made me want to read her story.
Also, this book is about a refugee which is still a big political issue in Europe because of war and also in other parts of the world, as also people in Venezuela are escaping from their country due to its communists roots and misplanning in a countrywide famine.
Part 1- The Greatest Nation on Earth
In this part the author recounts her childhood and her family´s history in Hyesan, North Korea. She describes her early memories and her family’s life. Her mother came from an influential family with good songbun which can be described as the Korean version of a caste system. A whole family is classified rather than just one person, depending on what the family was doing just before, during and after the founding of the North Korean State in 1948. If one family member is disgraced In North Korea a familiy´s songbun can fall fast if one family member is disgraced in any way but it is rather impossible to improve the songbun therefore people try to marry people with equally good songbun. Her mother met her father on a train ride. He was a in the military. They fell in love and were to marry, until her mother´s mother found a “better” man with higher songbun. Without the blessing of the family, her mother could not marry her father. Therefore, she went on to marry the man her mother had chosen for her. Hyeonseo was born in January 1980 with the name Kim Ji-Hae. Soon afterwards her mother divorced her biological father and went on to marry the man she truly loved. Hyeonseo was only to learn about her biological parents when her grandmother told her. Her name was changed to her second name, Min-young, as part of her parents’ marriage, to erase all traces to her biological father.
The first few years of her life she spends with her family in Hyesan in the Ryanggang Province in the north of North Korea. Hyesan is located at the Yalu River that builds a natural border to China. This also leds people trade illegally with China. Mount Paektu is also in the province, which is the highest peak in North Korea and a sacred revolutionary sight, as it is a legend in North Korea that the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was born there in a small hut.
The authors childhood took place before the great famine in the 1990s North Korea. She grew up believing North Korea to be the greatest country of all. The propaganda taught the North Koreans to believe that people in other countries were suffering and only the Great Father was providing for his nation. The children were drilled in kindergarten and school what it means to be good communists. Due to her families good songbun and her mother’s smuggling business her family had good financial funds and was able to provide luxury goods for the author and her little brother Min-ho. The family was affluent enough to make small mistakes go away with a little bribe here and there. When she was seven years old she witnessed a hanging as punishment for a minor crime.
Due to her father’s career in the military the family moved quite a lot before settling back in Hyesan and the author saw more of the country than most North Koreans, as travelling was only possible with special permissions.
Shortly before her 18th birthday she was rebelling and planned to visit China for a couple of days.
Part 2- The Hear of the Dragon
In this part, the author describes the life in China, after her flight to China. Originally, she had planned to stay for a couple of days to see something new, but she soon learns that she can´t come back. In the following years she first lives with her aunt and uncle in Shenyang for a couple of years. The modern city fascinates the author even though the adjustment is difficult, and she has to hide as the Chinese police sends North Korean defectors back to North Korea. Here she gets her third name Mi-ran a name to sound more “Chinese-Korean”. The next years she spends in Shenyang under different names and finally goes to Shanghai. There she gets a got position and finally makes the plan to escape to South Korea to get asylum.
Part 3- Journey into Darkness
The author chose a relatively easy way into Seoul as she had a Chinese passport. Her only trouble was, that the people at the immigration offices in South Korea do not believe that she is North Korean at first. She must undergo a lengthy process to prove that she is indeed North Korean. She acquires the needed South Korean passport and gives herself her seventh and last name Hyeon-seo Lee. At 28 years old she is finally free to do as she wants but in South Korea education makes up all chances and she struggling to see what she wants from life and what steps she wants to go next.
Her biggest wish is to bring her mother and brother from North Korea to South Korea. After some convincing her family finally agrees, and the planning begins. She helps them as much as she can, but in the end, she learns that sometimes you need the unconditional help from strangers. This experience changes her view on the world. The process of her family’s asylum takes much longer than expected but in August 2010 they are reunited at last.
At the beginning of the book it was hard to follow the author´s description of her family and the early stages of her life as she often switches between timelines. Nevertheless, I find her perception and her rebellious way to see the dictatorship of North Korea insightful and inspiring. She describes her experiences and feelings while growing up in North Korea with such honesty and boldness that gives the reader a true understanding and relation of what she was feeling in those moments.
The three parts of the book represent different stages of her life and with every life changing decision the parts change. This makes it clear for the reader how impactful a certain moment was to her. Her escape story might not have been planned but it is still remarkable how she managed this as good as she did. Especially the story of her family´s escape shows the reader how much the North Korean people are still disrespected as refugees in Asia.
The title is representative of different parts of her life, where she had to change her name so often in order to hide and doubting who she is and where she belongs to. Overall this is an inspiring book that is worth reading.