The Girl with Seven Names, Escape from North Korea, by Hyeonseo Lee


Lee Hyeon-seo (Korean: 이현서, born January 1980), best known for her book is a North Korean defector and activist who lives in Seoul, South Korea, where she is a student. 

THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES brings fascinating insight into one of the world’s most oppressed societies Author, Hyeonseo Lee, grew up in Hyesan next to the Chinese border. She grew up believing that their country was the best in the world and that the South Koreans were planning to attack them. She survived North Korea’s repressive regime, indoctrination and even the Great Famine, to escape in 1997.

Lee said in a Ted Talk in 2013 that “Among those of us who were born in North Korea and who have escaped it, the story I am telling is not and uncommon one.” She then tells the audience she understands that they are probably asking themselves “why a country such as mine still exists in the world?” She then follow saying that she “still loves her country and misses it very much.”

Her father’s job in the military in her early life was why they were relatively well off. Things changed when her father was arrested by the secret police, on the pretense of spying.  He was beaten so bad that he later died.

Hyesan was located right on the Chinese border with nothing but a river between the countries. Crossing the river was often a source of illegal trade and eventually a way to defect. Lee’s relatives included her “Uncle Opium” who smuggled North Korean heroin into China. (Lee gave special names to her many family members to protect their identity)

Lee began to question her life because of the poverty and starvation she witnessed and felt it didn’t make sense if her country was, as she had been told “the best on the planet”.

At age seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was to be reunited with her family. What she never expected was that the years between her escape from the North and her arrival in the South were far more dangerous for her: going first to China, and then later for family members to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Lee’s survival skills were her ability to quickly pick up the Chinese language and using her savings for the many bribes she had to pay. Getting new names and identity helped a lot too.

She writes in her epilogue that "the smallest thing sends me back into steel-plated survival mode".  The story made me recall the book, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick”, which presented a similar view of the North. 

More books by those who have escaped North Korea are coming out and hopefully it will be a help in bringing about positive changes. This is a must-read book that you will not want to put down.

See Hyeonseo Lee’s Ted Talk Click Here to Link to Talk

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The Girl with Seven Names
By Hyeonseo Lee