Korean Book Review: The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

There are different ways to escape from North Korea. As we saw recently in the news, (November 2017) one dangerous way for a soldier to escape is to run desperately through the JSA (Joint Security Area) and across the border while your comrades shoot at you from behind.

Here’s a video with a  description of what happened. The soldier is dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers and is now in hospital with gun shot wounds.

In the non-fiction international bestseller The Girl With Seven Names (William Collins, 2015) the author describes her unusual escape from North Korea.

I imagined this book would be doomy-gloomy but somehow it isn’t. The tone is matter-of-fact as Hyeonseo Lee retells her remarkable story which starts from her childhood in North Korea.

Her story begins with the alarming details of life in the North, then navigates through a mix of corruption and kindness that she meets along the way, and finally touches on the realities of adjusting to a totally new life. She left the North for China in 1997 but didn’t reach South Korea for another ten years. So part of her story takes place there.

With government messages delivered through speakers inside the home and children being taught to snitch on each other, life in the North seems reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. Only government approved cloths must be used to wipe the portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung which hang in each household. And citizens will risk their lives to save the portraits. But behind the scenes not everyone is a completely law abiding citizen. Hyeonseo lives near the Chinese border where smuggling and bribes are rife.

The resourceful Hyeonseo goes from an innocent girl to a street smart woman when she leaves the North. As a paperless illegal she has to to navigate her way through ID checks, corruption, informers, and scams.

She points out you can do without all sorts of material things but you can’t do without other people – for help or support. She is desperately lonely without her family and will do anything to be with them again. She often has to rely on others which unfortunately doesn’t always end well. The corruption of the officials in Laos making money off the helplessness of defectors is infuriating. I shed some tears.

She has changed her name many times and assumed different identities to survive. But her problems don’t stop when she reaches the South. They just change. Now she has to deal with freedom and making a new life. Discrimination is an issue since the two countries have totally different values.

Having believed the lies of the Kim regime, she is shocked at the wealth and development she finds in the South. But she discovers that, for very different reasons, it’s not so great here either. In one of many thought provoking moments, she points out that the people of South Korea are (according to statistics) THE unhappiest people in the developed world. She sees the unhappiness in her rich neighbours even though she comes from a country where human rights are unheard of and the people are starving.

Still, it’s a happy ending. Now the street smart young woman with little education has to try to fit in to a country where education is everything. I wanted to hear more about the difficulties in adjusting to life in South Korea – from using everyday technology to the deeper issues of living in a democratic country. We get a taste of this. Her mum struggles with technology and feels sorry for ‘the man who has to work inside the ATM machine’. It’s poignant but amusing. But that’s not what this book is about. Perhaps more of this will be in a sequel?

This is a story of dealing with the cards you’re dealt whilst looking after the people who are important to you. I found it very moving and uplifting.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: