Until she was seventeen years old, Hyeonseo Lee believed that North Korea was the greatest country in the world, but during the famine of 1997 her eyes were opened wide. The Girl with Seven Names recounts her escape. Growing up in a privileged family insulated Hyeonseo from the inhumane treatment that many North Korean’s endured. In comparison, Hyeonseo and her family had nice clothing, a home near the Chinese border, and plenty of food to eat due in part to her father’s military career and also to her mother’s savvy in the black market. Still, she lived in North Korea, where she witnessed her first public execution at the age of seven and where every Friday the children were made to report on their own or a classmate’s indiscretion – a game of tattletale with dire consequences.
When her father left the military to work for a trading company, the family’s fortune began to change. Hyenseo’s family moved to a home across the Yalu River from China, a move conducive to her father’s new career since he must cross over into China for business, and also for her mother who continues her black market trading. One day, her father did not return from work. Three days later they learned that he had been arrested by the secret police. Investigations were made into his business conduct. He was accused of bribery. Two weeks later, the family was informed that he was in the hospital. He’d been interrogated repeatedly, sleep deprived, and beaten. He was in the hospital six weeks when he committed suicide, a taboo so grave in North Korea, that the children would be reclassified as hostile in the songbun (caste) system and denied university entrance and the opportunity for a good job. Hyeonseo mother was jolted out of her grief and rushed to the hospital where she bribed hospital authorities into agreeing to change the cause of death to heart attack. For a time, it would seem that Hyeonseo and her brother’s futures were secure.
By age seventeen, Hyeonseo began to question the indoctrination she’d grown up with — if North Korea was superior to all other nations, why was it that the Chinese across the river had lights and the children and mothers she saw playing on the shore of the river moved about with relative freedom? Out of curiosity, she decided to cross the border one night, planning to return by morning. It would be twelve years before she would see her mother or brother again.
Hyeonseo moved from China to South Korea, and eventually to America, changing her name each time she assumed a new identity. She was arrested, kidnapped, attacked, and conned, but somehow she survived to bring her mother and brother out of North Korea. There were barriers to overcome everywhere – Hyenseo’s mother and brother were detained in Laos for illegal entry on their way to South Korea and held in jail. She was told that it would take five to six months to clear her family through the South Korean embassy. The Superintendent of the prison told her that she must pay a $5000 fine, but eventually she worked him down to $1400. Still, she was out of money. Miraculously, she met a benevolent Australian, Dick Stolp, who offered to help.
“Why are you helping me?” Hyeonseo asks. “I’m not helping you . . . I’m helping the North Korean people.” He had been moved by the stories of other North Koreans.
“What Dick had done changed my life. He showed me that there was another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so, and where callousness was unusual, not he norm . . . from the day I met him the world was a less cynical place. I started feeling warmth for other people.”
Hyeonseo Lee’s escape from North Korea was harrowing, but with great courage and ingenuity, she was able to assist her family’s escape as well. The best memoirs shine a light on a life that becomes a beacon for others. Hyeonseo’s determination in the face of great adversity is both heartbreaking and inspiring and it made me appreciative of the freedom that I enjoy.
I recommend The Girl with Seven Names for fans of Pachinko and Nothing to Envy. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.
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