In the comments of my review of Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Susan from Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books recommended The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and I was thrilled to see that my library had a copy (I seriously love my library, if you couldn’t tell. Their book collection is phenomenal). And so as soon as my stack of books began dwindling, I grabbed a copy of this book.
Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea to a family of good songbun, meaning their status was decently high. Their lives weren’t terrible compared to their fellow countrymen scrounging for food and dying in the streets, but as Hyeonseo grew, the cracks in the system became visible, and the country she’d always been told was the greatest country on the face of this earth began to seem…maybe not quite that great at all. But surely the things she viewed on illegal South Korean movies and Chinese television can’t be real, right? So many cars, all those buildings with flashing neon signs, fancy clothing…all that is just propaganda, right? Life can’t be that good anywhere.
Just before she turns 18, Hyeonseo, wanting to do something adventurous for once in her life, decides to slip across the border (which she can see from her house), to visit family in China. But once she arrives, her mother and brother pay the price for her recklessness, and Hyeonseo can no longer return home. Thus begins her saga of living illegally in China, reinventing herself over and over as only one without a country must. Life on her own is a struggle, always worrying about those she left behind, and far too many people want to create a new kind of prison for her. After years of hard work and constant fear of deportation, Hyeonseo finally makes it to freedom in South Korea, where life becomes both better and more difficult. And there’s still the question of her family in North Korea. Don’t they deserve the kind of freedom she has, too?
Ms. Lee’s story expands on Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, showing the dangers North Koreans face when they leave the only home they’ve ever known. She points out that for people who escape because of starvation and fear of death, the transition to freedom comes little easier, since there’s nowhere to go but up; for people like her mother and brother, who led a relatively comfortable existence, a free life in Seoul, where everything must be earned via a job (for which they are entirely unqualified, having been educated solely with North Korean propaganda), can be painful and confusing. Her story, and ultimately those of her mother and brother, are success stories, but how many are not?
This is a story of courage, strength, and indefatigable determination. Ms. Lee’s description of homesickness is heartbreaking; even when a place is terrible and hurts so many people, it’s still home, and knowing that you can never return home is a unique kind of pain. My heart aches for her and for the thousands upon thousands of North Koreans for whom home is only a memory and never again a destination.
Far from satisfying my curiosity about North Korea, Ms. Lee’s story has only piqued it further. While Nothing to Envy told more about those who suffered deeply under the Kim family, The Girl With Seven Names explains what life was like for those who had it easier. I’d love to read a memoir by a defector who escaped due to dire circumstances, to understand exactly what their path to building a life in the outside world looks like. Goodreads has several lists of books on North Korea; the longest has 105 books, so it looks like I’ll definitely have a few options.