HCAU Reviews: The Girl with Seven Names

HCAU Reviews: The Girl with Seven Names, Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee with David John.

In a political climate that sees the so-called “leader of the free world” attempt to engage in a penis measuring contest with a North Korean leader, it can be difficult to establish what is propaganda, what is myth, and what is a joke at the North Koreans’ expense. While Western publications scrambled to comment on this tragic display of international diplomacy they simultaneously ignored the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report on human rights in North Korea that saw the government committing crimes against humanity including, but not limited to murder, enslavement, rape, and extermination. As a result, I think it is important to remind ourselves of the true colours of North Korea, looking beyond the international fanfare and looking to the limited, individual stories of the true North Korea.

And with that introduction, I give you Hyeonseo Lee;

In her book, ‘The Girl with Seven Names, My Escape from North Korea’ (2015), she deals her treacherous and laborious journey of both physically escaping the clutches of totalitarian rule and the emotional and psychological restraints of living in an all-encompassing state.

The first section details her childhood and subsequent indoctrination by the North Korean state. Most interestingly, she recalls the passing of Kim Jong-Il and the hysterical state mourning that ensued. She remembers the marches and the outpouring of emotion that women would express on the street. Most mind-boggling is the way she recalls herself becoming awash with emotion; not because of the pain she felt at the loss of a leader but because everyone else around her was acting distraught and she felt she needed to. I think this is a pertinent example of something that many people forget – from the day a North Korean is born, they are indoctrinated by a society that is based on the importance and divine nature of their leader. Not one thought is without their presence and as such, all thought becomes swamped with astute patriotism disguised as love. In this type of system, it is extremely difficult to become your own person with an unrestricted mind – something that Lee struggles with right up to the last few pages of the book. The mixture of relief that she is no longer in the country and grief for a land lost mixes in her mind throughout the whole book, adding an extra layer to the already complex story.

Once deciding to visit relatives across the border in China, she crossed the Yalu river in 1997 (it was frozen over) with help from a border guard, although she only planned to stay a while. However, due to complications she had to stay with these relatives as an illegal immigrant and had to buy her identity, with a passport and a driver’s license. After 10 years of hiding in China, living in multiple cities and having little contact with her family, she finally escaped by obtaining yet more illegal documents and flying into the Incheon International Airport in 2008. She documents the stress that this journey caused her, including the nonchalant response she received after claiming she was North Korean at immigration in the airport.

After an arduous process, that included proving she was North Korean, she was then put on a course that would help her better assimilate into South Korean life, however she is quick to note that there was such a massive wealth, ideological, and cultural gap that meant settling was incredibly difficult; ‘We are a racially homogeneous people on the outside, but inside we have become very different as a result of the 63 years of division’. As a result of these divisions, her suffering due to her North Korean heritage was not over as she details that many South Koreans have prejudices against North Koreans. She even considered going back to China and risk being caught again because life was so difficult.

However, this inspiring story does not end here. Lee was sending money home to her mother and younger brother, however North Korean police had intercepted these funds, and as a result she realised her family would need to leave their home county. She returned to China, collected her family at the Yalu river border and began a 2000-mile journey to Laos and then back to South Korea. However, throughout this journey they were nearly caught multiple times, with her brother and mother being imprisoned in Laos after a journey through the forest with a broker. With the help and generosity of an Australian stranger named Dick Stolp, Lee managed to get the funds to bribe the prison guards to let her family leave and they managed to get themselves to the South Korean embassy. Lee notes that this encounter with Stolp was a defining moment in her life as she starts to see the good and generosity in people outside of her family, especially as she had become so isolated in her time in China and struggle to South Korea; "when my view of the world changed and I realized there were many good people on this planet. I also realized how precious life is."

Lee with Dick Stolp years after he helped her.

Hyeonseo Lee’s story, and those of other North Korean defectors brave enough to shed light on their situation, shows that while we are all laughing at tweets and memes, people are suffering with potentially fatal consequences. After all, the myth and mystery surrounding North Korea as a state doesn’t take away from the fact that North Koreans are people, just like us, and that they deserve the respect, humanitarian help, freedom, and liberty. ‘The Girl With Seven Names’ is testament to not just the strength of Lee and her courageous brother and sister, but the strength of those willing enough to risk everything for the safety of themselves and their families, and then speak out about it on an international stage.

Sources:

https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/north-korea

All images from Google.