Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘The Girl with Seven Names’

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2018

by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (William Collins 2015)

Born Kim Ji-hae in Hyesan, North Korea in 1980, Hyeonseo Lee had a happy childhood, despite her parents’ divorce when she was a baby. She was adopted by her mother’s second husband and was given a new name, Park Min-young, the second of the seven names of the title. She only learned of her true parentage when she was a teenager. Sadly, this knowledge resulted in her alienation from her (step-)father, who had raised her lovingly as his own child. He died before she was able to reconcile with him–the first of many heart-breaking losses and misjudgments that plagued her young life.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, The Greatest Nation on Earth, describes Lee’s early life in North Korea, when she never questioned what she was told by her parents and teachers and actually believed that North Korea was the greatest nation on earth, that it was the South Koreans who were suffering and starving, and that all Westerners were ruthless devils. Chapter 4, “The Lady in Black”, describes how as soon as they start school, North Korean children are taught to worship the Kim family: The teachers read us stories of child heroes who’d fought the Japanese during the period of colonial rule in Korea, and legends from the boyhood of Kim Il-sung–of how he’d suffered for the people’s happiness even as an infant, giving away his own food and shoes to children less fortunate. Whenever the leaders were mentioned, the teachers adopted low, tremulous voices, as if they were intoning the names of living gods. The walls displayed photographs of Kim Il-sung as a young guerrilla; Kim Il-sung surrounded by smiling orphans; Kim Il-sung in his white marshal’s uniform, as the father of our nation. He was tall and striking, and his brave wife, Kim Jong-suk, who had fought alongside him, seemed like a lady from a folktale. It was not difficult to adore them. . . . Yet alongside the brainwashing is a widespread tolerance of smuggling, black markets and bribes, and Lee’s family benefits from this lax enforcement of the laws; her mother, in particular, does illegal business with Korean-Chinese on the other side of the Yalu River. The China-North Korea border, at least in this location, is as porous as any other border around the world. This surprised me. (Although I knew that many North Koreans escaped over that border, I guess I thought it was harder than it in fact is. For small children, especially boys, it is particularly easy, and according to Lee, there are no repercussions for crossing the Yalu to play with (Korean-)Chinese kids on the other side, and when done playing, the children simply return to their homes on the North Korean side. In fact, that is why Lee herself crossed just before reaching the age of majority; she knew she would not be punished.)

In Part Two, To the Heart of the Dragon, Lee, now almost 18, the age of adult responsibilities, thoughtlessly decides that she wants to see China, just across the river from her home in Hyesan. One December night, she walks across the frozen river and knocks on the door of one of her mother’s business contacts. From there, on a whim, she decides to go and visit some unsuspecting relatives in Shenyang, a large city eight hours away. One thing leads to another, and Lee realizes that she cannot go back home. She stays with her aunt and uncle in Shenyang for two years, and almost marries a Korean-Chinese man named Geun-soo, but she runs away before the wedding. Astonishingly (due to a combination of dumb luck and quick thinking), Lee manages to avoid the awful fate that entraps so many female North Korean defectors, learns to speak fluent Chinese, finds well-paying jobs, has a serious relationship with a rich South Korean businessman, and flies to Seoul to ask for asylum in South Korea.

Part Three, Journey into Darkness, chronicles Lee’s introduction into South Korean society and her risky, expensive rescue of her mother and brother. Again, a combination of quick thinking and extraordinary good luck results in eventual success, but there are moments when the reader is sure that this is going to end badly–only the photographs of the mother and brother visiting Chicago remind one that they must have prevailed. The story of their long journey through China, to a Laotian prison, and finally to South Korea is a fascinating one. But a more profound struggle awaits once they are “free”–discriminated against by South Koreans and ill-equipped to function in that fast-paced, ultra-competitive society, they both contemplate repatriation, despite its risks. Meanwhile, Lee’s relationship with her South Korean boyfriend ends, and she begins speaking out publicly about life in North Korea and her own personal story, culminating in a TED talk in 2013.

Years ago, I taught a student from North Korea. She was a rank beginner in English (a rare occurrence in today’s globalized world), so she was unable to tell me much about her story, but she did give me a short written biography that someone had translated into (poor) English for her. Like Hyeonseo Lee, she too was able to get her daughter out to join her in South Korea. When I asked how, thinking of the dangers for young women who escape to China and end up being trafficked as prostitutes or brides of poor Chinese farmers, she dismissed my question with one word: money. And Hyeonseo Lee’s story also shows that with enough money, one can do pretty much what one wants.

A really fascinating book. I tore through it as if it were a novel.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »