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The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea

Author: Hyeonseo Lee with David John
Published: 2015
Type: Biography
Finished: July 27, 2020

Rating: ★★★★

Image from Amazon

I know it’s a cliché to say “it’s too unrealistic to be fiction”; and yet it is a true story. Just before turning 18 and becoming an adult in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee crosses the narrow Yalu River into China on a lark to visit some relatives. While she is gone, the Bowibu – the local security group that enforces loyalty to the regime – notices she is gone. Lee’s mother is able to get notice to her not to return home. A fugitive, even in China, Lee starts a 10 year journey to get to South Korea. She takes on six new names throughout her young life in order to stay hidden in plain sight. She has several narrow escapes from being returned to North Korea where she would be executed or sent to a penal farm to starve to death..

This book is a combination of biography, thriller, and insight into North Korea. The best trait North Korea imprinted on Hyeonseo was to not show her feelings. 

“One of the tragedies of North Korea is that everyone wears a mask, which they let slip at their peril. The mask my mother presented to people outside the family was of a hardened, no-nonsense woman of high songbun [status]. In truth, it hid  a sense of fun and a deep compassion for others.” [p 20] 

This ability to push her emotions down and maintain composure in the face of incredible danger helps her time and time again. 

[Spoiler Alert]

Hyeonseo misses her family and parts of her old life. Through perseverance, grit, and not a little luck, she is able to get her mother and brother into South Korea. But adjustment is difficult:

“Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the South, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad. People in the first group adjust rapidly. Their new life, however challenging, could only be better. For the people in the second group, life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, nore ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken from them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.” [p 281]

[\Spoiler Alert]

Hyeonseo gains a new understanding of North Korean life when she leaves. People ask her why North Koreans put up with this?

“In truth there is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest blurring morals so that no one is blameless. … 

“Ordinary people are made persecutors, denouncers, thieves. They use the fear flowing from the top to win some advantage, or to survive.” [p 150]

This is an excellent book I had to fight between not being able to put it down on one hand, while on the other I’d have to put it down because I couldn’t handle the tension of wondering if she and her family would escape being caught. Which is silly on one hand; we know she makes it because she writes this book about it. But we don’t know about her mother and brother. 

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