The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee
Highly recommend read: Contrary to what you’d expect to be the driving force behind someone defecting from a secretive dictatorship like North Korea, this young girl began her journey as a 17-year-old wanting to see something of the world before she entered college. Like all North Koreans, she was taught that she lived in the greatest country in the world. But she’d heard and loved forbidden South Korean pop songs. She’d watched illegal Chinese soap operas.
She had a better than normal life. Her mother was strict, but her parents were loving. She was brought up well. Her family possessed exceptionally good songbun, a caste system in which “a family was classified as loyal, wavering or hostile, depending on what the father’s family was doing at the time just before, during and after the founding of the state in 1948.”
Her family lived in Hyesan, a village on the border with China, separated only by a small river barely thirty feet across. Her mother, who supplemented the family income, a born entrepreneur…with a nose for a deal”, had a business partner in the black market with a trusted Chinese family on the other side of the river. Hyeonseo Lee could see their house from her home.
Her daring plan was to cross over for a couple of days to visit relatives and see China. But her motivation, which almost any western teenager could relate to, was deepened by the dangerous questions about her country that she never dared ask aloud.
Why were people starving in what she believed was ‘the most prosperous country in the world’? Beginning in 1993, the North Korean famine which killed over 500,000 people, driving some to cannibalism, was turned into a propaganda campaign, instigating austerity measures, and punishing people who even used the words ‘famine’ and ‘hunger’.
Another thing that haunted her were public executions, mandatory from elementary school on. She witnessed her first execution when she pushed her way through the crowd to see “something a seven-year-old girl should never have seen, a man hanging by the neck.”
She goes on to say: “My curiosity had always been greater than my fear—not a good trait to have in North Korea, where fear keeps your senses sharp and helps you stay alive. Part of me knew very well that crossing into China was highly risky. It could have serious consequences, and not just for me.”
The crossing itself turned out to be easy. But she realized, too late, that she could never go home to her family. Over the next ten years, her wits, courage and plain good fortune would rescue her time and again from life-threatening dangers.
In China she was illegal and had no ID. In the beginning it was unsafe to go outside her aunt and uncle’s apartment. She spent her time becoming fluent in Mandarin so she could pass for Chinese.
After two years with relatives she knew she’d overstayed her welcome and decided to go on her own, living life on the run with a new name. If caught she would be arrested, repatriated, beaten or sent to prison camp.
Desperate to make money, she found work as a hairdresser but it turned out to be a glorified massage parlor. Back on the run, she found a job waitressing and changed her name again. She had no one to talk to. Telling anyone she was North Korean was dangerous. But loneliness made her careless once. Informants were everywhere, betrayals common. She was picked up by the police.
Because she spoke excellent Mandarin and had become proficient in lying, she passed their interrogation. She writes, “Hiding beneath so many lies, I hardly knew who I was anymore.”
She fled to a new city and changed her name again. All this time she had no ID, but managed to work and save enough money to pay smugglers to bring her mother and brother out of North Korea. She was captured by thugs who took her money and demanded more.
Her story reads like a like a spine-tingling thriller which I could not put down.
Before she tells of her escape, however, Hyeonseo Lee reveals what it was like to grow up in this strange kind of confinement. The Kim dynasty created a personality cult that affected every aspect of their lives. Every household had two portraits of the ‘Great Leader’ Kim Il-sung, founder of the country, and his son, Kim Jong-il. The family ate under the gaze of their leaders. The portraits had to be kept scrupulously clean using a special cloth provided by the government. They were placed higher than any other object and no other pictures were permitted on the same wall. Government officials would enter the house monthly to inspect the portraits for the slightest bit of dust or damage.
Surprisingly, she states that “this intrusion of the state into our home did not seem oppressive or unnatural to me. It was unthinkable that anyone would complain about the portraits.”
From kindergarten on, the Great Leaders were the primary subject at school. In kindergarten they were told the story of their birth, the ‘nativity’. At age five the story of Kim Jong-il’s birth seemed magical.
“His birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens – a double rainbow over Mount Paektu, swallows singing songs of praise with human voices, and the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. We listened to this and a shudder of awe passed through our small bodies.
We were the children of Kim Il-sung, and that made us children of the greatest nation on earth. We sang songs about the village of his birth, Mangyongdae, performing a little dance and putting our hands in the air on the word ‘Mangyongdae’.
His birthday, on April 15, was the Day of the Sun, and our country was the Land of the Eternal Sun. These birthdays were national holidays and all children were given treats and candies. From our youngest years we associated the Great Leader and Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.”
Thanks to Hyeonseo Lee’s courage to share her story, we understand more about how three generations of this impenetrable regime has been able to hold an entire nation captive with its fabricated stories.
But that’s only half the story. She recounts the ten years of her harrowing escape across China before she was able to reach safety, all the while longing to return to the love and warmth of her family in North Korea.