Review : The Girl with Seven Names By Hyeonseo Lee. An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal communist regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?
Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.
She could not return, since rumours of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.
This is the unique story not only of Hyeonseo’s escape from the darkness into the light, but also of her coming of age, education and the resolve she found to rebuild her life – not once, but twice – first in China, then in South Korea. Strong, brave and eloquent, this memoir is a triumph of her remarkable spirit.
Review : The Girl with Seven Names By Hyeonseo Lee – The first time I felt intrigued to read about North Korea was when I watched the opening ceremony of the 18th Asian Games on TV. At that time, South Korea and North Korea put up a united front, marching together as one team. The MC introduced them with extraordinary enthusiasm, followed by lively applause and handshake of the two ambassadors of both states.
Before that, I have heard a lot of shocking news about North Korea. Is the story still there? Then I found The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee and wanted to read it immediately. Getting first-hand news would certainly be more accurate. In fact, this memoir has given me new knowledge that has been hidden so far.
I would like to commend Hyeonseo Lee for having written this extraordinary story without reducing empathy for herself and North Korea. I was horrified when little Hyeonseo Lee had to see the death penalty with her own eyes. I felt the same sentiment when her father died, putting his family in such uncertain life. Hyeonseo Lee did not suffer until she saw North Koreans hit by hunger and people die on the streets from famine.
The part that made me gasp the most was when Hyeonseo wanted to get out of North Korea. She would cross to China to see her distant relative. It was not her intention to leave the country, but she had no choice when she heard words that she was being hunted in her home country. Torture and death sentence were waiting because at that time she had turned 18, the age when someone was considered an adult so that they could be sentenced.
She then started his life in China, which didn’t turn out to be better. He moved from one city to another and started working various jobs. One terrible experience she had to endure was being trapped in prostitution, but she survived that episode of life. On another side, she also had a romantic relationship with a Chinese man.
In this book, Hyeonseo illustrates that the rule that any North Koreans who are caught in China must be deported to their home country. This made things worse because on her every trip Hyeonseo had to face fear every time she was under the inspection of security officers. She knew that death threat could come to her at any time.
This story also presents big hopes when Hyeonseo managed to enter South Korea. She began to try her luck there. She got to go to school, work, meet new people in the new world, and fall in love. It turned out that the South Korean government did open up opportunities for North Koreans to become their permanent citizens. But other heavy struggles were still there when Hyeonseo tried to meet with her mother and younger brother again.
I read this book with a pounding heart but I finished it with a high appreciation for Hyeonseo. I realize that there are many other hidden stories for the world to see and pay attention to. I try to be strong writing this, and hope that Hyeonseo will become an inspiration for world peace.