The Girl with Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee, David John, authors, Josie Dunn, narrator
Hyeonseo Lee had not meant to escape from North Korea or her family. Although it was dangerous, she had only wanted to secretly cross the river into China to visit with some relatives before her 18th birthday. She had planned to return in a couple of weeks at which time she would get an official ID card. However, life intervened in the form of a government census. Her mother was forced to report her missing. She had unwittingly put her mother and brother in danger. Her 18th birthday had come and gone, and now if she were to return she would be responsible for her actions and would be punished. She was trapped in China.
Growing up, Hyeonseo Lee had been a happy and well loved child. In school, she learned what all the other children learned. North Korea was the greatest country in the world. The leaders were like G-ds and even their pictures were valued more than any other possession. The students were brainwashed. They were taught to hate South Koreans and Americans. There were rules about dress and behavior. They were trained to denounce each other for any perceived infractions. Those families would then simply disappear, more often than not. Neighbors turned each other in for extra rations. The fear was pervasive. They had no real freedom, but they also had no real responsibility. The government was meant to provide everything, education, health care, food and shelter, although it was minimal, at best, and many went hungry.
This memoir is the remarkable story of Hyenonseo Lee’s journey to freedom after finding herself trapped in China without proper identification papers. Without any skills or visible means of support, she was forced to rely on her courage, her wits and her relatives and family friends to survive. She was willful and resourceful, and when she felt trapped, she simply picked up and moved on, without a plan, even abandoning those who helped her, if necessary. Fortunately, most often, luck intervened and prevented tragedy from overtaking her. Her story, though, is harrowing and hard to believe. Time after time she escaped from the most dangerous situations because of the kindness of strangers or simply serendipity. After more than a decade, and many hair-raising experiences, she was finally granted asylum in South Korea.
Still, she was alone there, and separated from those she loved. She despaired and would often dream about bringing her mother and brother to her. It would not be without great expense and grave risk to all of them. Escaping from North Korea was dangerous, even for those who had special relationships with the border guards, like her brother who was a smuggler. In the Asian countries mentioned in the book, North and South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and China, bribery was a way of life. Smuggling of goods and humans was a common business. Brokers, sometimes unscrupulous, were paid to guide those seeking asylum out of the country. Bribes needed to be arranged so that border guards would look away. Government officials took money, as well. Sometimes the commitments were not honored and the money was lost and the asylum seekers were imprisoned and sent back to uncertain fates. No one could be trusted. People eagerly turned each other in to the authorities. Escape often depended on lucky breaks.
For almost two decades, Hyeonseo bounced from job to job, relationship to relationship and from one precarious situation to another. What her story reveals is the constant fear that the North Koreans live with daily. It reveals their distrust of everyone, since everyone is a possible enemy. It reveals their ignorance of all things other than North Korea. It reveals their hatred for America. North Koreans are brainwashed by a system that allows no outside information to influence their lives. It was cell phones and the internet that combined to open up Hyenonseo’s eyes to the world outside and that allowed her to maintain contact with her family throughout her years of exile.
After reading the memoir, I thought that the author either exhibited extreme courage or extreme naïveté. On the one hand, her cleverness allowed her to escape many an ordeal, but on the other, her lack of worldliness prevented her from being suspicious at appropriate times which exposed her to danger that might have been avoided. That said, I do not think there are many who could have successfully accomplished all that she has been able to accomplish in the two decades of her wandering, although, in order to accomplish her goals, she often compromised others. Luckily, things seemed to work out in the end.
There is a great deal of significance given to names in the book. First, a good name was very important in North Korea. Second, the author changed hers, for a variety of reasons, seven times before she found freedom. Thirdly, she also had a unique way of describing her relatives with names that revealed something about them, like Uncle Poor, Uncle Opium, Aunt Pretty and Aunt Tall.
While the book is really informative, and I learned a great deal about the hardships and the dangers the North Koreans face, I don’t think the book fully brought out the magnitude of the danger. So much happened over the almost two decades of her trials and tribulations, but sometimes the story moved on before I fully absorbed it or understood exactly how it really played out.