North Korea is a black hole for most of us. We only know small bits and pieces about this most closed country in the world – most of the times about the controlled regime there and the dictator worship. We hardly meet people from North Korea or hear them. So when I received this book – The Girl with Seven Names, that was the story of Hyeonseo Lee – a North Korean defector, for review, I picked it up immediately to read. The book was eye-opening at various levels. And I just could not keep it down till I had finished it.
It is the story of a young girl, now named Hyeonseo Lee, who was born in a high profile family of North Korea. And who out of curiosity stepped out of the country and could never go back. The title talks about the various identities she had to take in order to finally make it to neighboring South Korea. And get an independent identity that she could finally live with, without the need to hide her North Korean origins.
It is a gripping story that begins by giving you the life inside North Korea. Of how the hierarchical society works, how the bribes and the regime work. How smuggling is a way of life and the bribes the way out of being caught. How you can get away with anything until you ignore the ultimate authority. It gives a glimpse of the family life that seems no different from families anywhere. Author Hyeonseo Lee talks about the story of her family. And her teenage curiosity to cross the river and step foot on the other side of the land that is called China. However, destiny takes its own turns. And she is unable to return.
Life takes Hyeonseo Lee to various parts of China, from living comfortably with relatives who not only take care of her but try to get her married into a respectable family. She runs away and finds herself waiting tables in restaurants. Hiding her North Korean identity at the same time looking for companionship in fellow North Koreans. She moves to Shanghai and works in private sector on a fake Id. And apparently lives comfortably when she decides that she has to defect and live in Korea which according to her is at least ‘Korea’.
Now the story is so gripping and the girl so young that you always fear for her. You feel her vulnerability at every step. You feel her pain of missing her family, of being out of touch with them and not even knowing if they are alive or not. And you find her naïve and yet utterly strong – someone who can deal easily with the hardened brokers. Still in her 20’s and she manages to pull out not just herself but also her mother and younger brother out of the country. You salute those guts and you salute that spirit. This becomes even more relevant for someone who grew up in a much-closed country being told that everyone outside was bad and they were living in the best country in the world.
Her opening up to the rest of the world as she lives in it and experiences it first hand is endearing. At the same time, she can never let go of the fact that she is a North Korean. And can never call any other country her home even though her passport allows her to say so is touching.
Having said that, there are some gaps in the narrative… How did Hyeonseo Lee manage to make so much money doing menial jobs that she could afford to pay the brokers so much? Especially during her travels to get her mother and brother out of Korea. She spends so much money when she has not been working for so long. And she has no source of income. She seems to be a destiny child who was helped by family, friends, and strangers in equal measures. The kindness of people who helped her re-enforces one’s faith in humanity.
I have never read a North Korean’s defector’s story. So, for me reading this book – The Girl with Seven Names, was very educative. I got introduced to not only life in North Korea. But also the landscape of North Korea – its mountains and its rivers. I got introduced to the world of illegal migrants in China. And I got introduced to the underbelly of the region where almost everything is possible if you have the means. Above all, it introduced me to the power of willpower.
I special mention also for the co-author David John, who has lent beautiful language to the book.
Must Read it The Girl with Seven Names.
You can also hear her speak at TED and other forums talking about her story.