Every now and then you read a book that really impacts you. A book that simply sticks with you, one that, for days after you finish, you can’t get it out of your head – and don’t want to. It can be a novel, or maybe a non-fiction book, maybe something about history that makes you look at the world in a different way, or stretches you mind into a previously unknown shape. It may also become something about which you feel absolutely compelled to tell others. For me, the book that currently occupies that space is the incredible story of a defector from the prison-state of North Korea.
Originally published in 2015, Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names is not merely a harrowing tale, it is a collection of them. These are stories that are all too real for the millions born in North Korea and for the intrepid few who dare to seek freedom by attempting escape from its bondage.
Ms. Lee’s book is subdivided into three parts. The first part chronicles her life from birth until her eventual escape. It includes multiple moves until her family finally settles in the town of Hyesan, on the North Korean border with China and within sight of the city of Changbai – they brighter lights of which eventually became a lure to the author. Some of what is revealed is unsurprising – the forced indoctrination, the public executions, the atomization of society, the forced reverence for the pathetically insecure “Dear Leader”. Other aspects were more surprising – such as a border with China that was frequently crossed in both directions, the amount of smuggling that occurs, and so on. In retrospect, one should not be surprised that a system as oppressive as that in North Korea produces so much bribery, black market commerce, and general corruption that filters all the way down to the lowest levels of society.
And speaking of the levels of society, the author educates the reader on the North Korean system of songbun, in which people are ranked within society in one of fifty-one gradations spanning over three broad categories – loyal, wavering or hostile. Ms. Lee rightfully notes that the system of songbun had created a society more stratified than that of a feudal society, and one in which upward movement is nearly impossible. Like all communist animal farms, that of North Korea is one in which all animals are equal, but some are most definitely more equal than others.
As Part One nears its conclusion, the author’s disillusionment with her home country grows, particularly during the famine of the mid-90’s which left about a million dead. Nearing the end of her high school years, facing college and adulthood, and the aforementioned allure of the lights of Changbai, the Ms. Lee decides to take a short trip across the river to get just a small taste of freedom before returning home to begin the next phase of life. As this first part ends with a walk across the frozen Yalu River, in what eventually became a one way journey.
Part Two chronicles Ms. Lee’s life as an illegal in China. In short order, the author finds out that while she is technically free from the bonds of North Korea, she is still not truly free. In addition to a myriad of other human rights abuses, the Chinese government’s miserable record on human rights includes the repatriation of North Korean defectors, sending most of them to a back to their prison-state and leaving them to a fate of hard labor, execution, or both. Thus, the author’s existence during her decade in China was a precarious one, forcing her to adopt new identities with the frequency of a spy in a John LeCarre novel (hence the seven names to which the title refers). In numerous instances she is nearly caught, escaping arrest with a combination of guile and luck. To complicate matters further, she managed to stay in communication with her mother and brother back in North Korea, bearing the weight of guilt regarding loved ones left behind. More than once her mother implored her to come home, assuring her the right people could be bribed to make her return a safe one.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my own mother is a defector from East Germany, crossing into West Berlin with her family when she was age 10. While the train ride she and her family took in 1953 was not without risks, their freedom was assured once they had crossed into West Berlin. Such was not the case for Ms. Lee, as crossing the border into China was only the beginning of a very long journey, one that was fraught with danger every step of the way. The fact that she did not go home despite the continuous hazard of being an illegal in China is a testament to her courage – and the incredible difficulty of escaping North Korea.
The third part of the book finds the author finally making it to Seoul, South Korea, and her eventual convincing of her mother and brother to defect. She returns to China and the border near her hometown and escorts them over 2000 miles into Laos. Along the way, the hazards of being caught are as ever present as they were in her previous decade as a Chinese illegal, only with higher stakes by having her mother and brother in tow. In Laos, her mother and brother are arrested and held in jail for months, although thankfully, not repatriated (apparently even the government of Laos is more humane than that of China – a low bar to hurdle). After exhausting all her options and running out of money to bribe the Laotion authorities, serendipity intervenes in the form of an Australian man who decides to help for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. Even a hardened misanthrope would have to reconsider his outlook after reading about this incident. With Ms. Lee receiving the funds she needs, she is able to spring her family from jail and finally get them into Seoul. Free at last.
Today, Ms. Lee spends a lot of her time as an activist for North Korean defectors and human rights in general. She wants the world to know the true fate of North Koreans, both those that remain and those that defect – both successfully and unsuccessfully. She has done multiple TED talks, one of which is embedded below. While North Korea still suffers under the boot of a third generation “leader” in Kim Jong-Un (or, as I refer to him, Pudgy Bucket of Baby Fat with the Worst Haircut Ever), Lee and others like her seek to shine the light of the international community on the horrible conditions imposed on North Koreans, the savage human rights abuses, and above all, a form of government for which no decent, civilized human being should give any quarter. Her goal is to see the Korean peninsula re-united, with the people of the North living under the banner of freedom. We should all say a prayer for the North Korean people, and root for Ms. Lee to one day to witness the realization of her dream.