“To know your rights are being abused, or that you are abusing someone else’s, you first have to know that you have them, and what they are. But with no comparative information about societies elsewhere in the world, such awareness in North Korea cannot exist…. If the North Korean people acquired an awareness of their rights, or individual freedoms and democracy, the game would be up for the regime in Pyongyang.”
That it takes Hyeonseo Lee over a decade after defecting from North Korea to realise this basic fact is testament to the isolation of the life which she has fled. In The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, she recounts her extraordinary journey, across the Yalu River into China, through Shenzhen and Shanghai, and finally to Seoul.
Lee’s escape from the world’s most oppressive regime is all the more remarkable because it happens by accident. As a headstrong seventeen-year-old from a relatively privileged family, she rebels by crossing the Chinese border one night, planning to visit her uncle in China and return a few days later. Instead, her disappearance focusses suspicion onto her mother and brother, and she receives phone call saying it is too dangerous for her to ever come back. What begins as a teenaged prank becomes a journey of intense adversity, as Lee struggles to reclaim her identity in a country that views her as a criminal, and then to reunite with the family she never meant to leave behind.
The North Korea (or Choson) of Lee’s account differs from that portrayed in recent news stories about military tension along the southern border and absurd threats that the nation will invade the US. While the backdrop of identical soldiers marching in unison and the empty streets of Pyongyang seem otherworldly, Lee’s Choson is full of humanity and practicality. She describes in detail how, when the great famine begins, fundamental instincts take over: “Starvation and necessity, however, were forcing a radical change of mindset… People were unlearning lifetimes of ideology and reverting to what humans have practised for thousands of years – trade.” And inevitably, without the institutions of law, the shadow economy flourishes. Lee’s uncle trades in drugs, her brother smuggles motorcycles across the river, and her mother continuously bribes officials to keep her family safe. (Lee casually recalls that “in North Korea, bribery is often the only way of making anything happen.”)
As for Lee herself, her fight first to reach South Korea, then to bring her mother and brother there too, requires an acute understanding of money, for she has entered an underworld where everything, from official documents to human life, can be bought. She negotiates with brokers, border guards, police from four countries, and officials of a prison in Laos. She learns the price of a fake passport and a guard looking the other way, which she finances through her fierce determination to succeed, working her way up from a waitress in a Shenzhen restaurant. And slowly, she loses the naivety of the girl who came to China by accident, and becomes fluent both in Mandarin and in the realities of enterprise.
At its heart, this book is a coming-of-age tale, centred on Lee’s efforts to make amends for the teenaged impulse which tore her apart from her family for twelve years. But through her agonising transformation, she reveals insights into the horror of North Korean regime. The act of eating ice cream while watching television becomes a moment of unparalleled personal freedom. A hostess in a restaurant in China run by the North Korean government is bought plastic surgery with state money while hundreds of thousands starve. And when an Australian tourist offers to help Lee free her family from a Lao prison, she doubts that a stranger’s motives could be sincere, so mistrustful is she of human compassion.
To say that this book ends happily is an overstatement. Lee does not gloss over the troubles North Korean defectors face trying to adjust to freedom in the 21st century. She acknowledges the harshness of capitalism, where refugees who have suffered unimaginable hardships are only qualified for low-paid menial jobs, and struggle to pay rent and bills. Freedom can be terrifying and hard to accept, and some defectors find the transition so difficult they try to return. While this may be impossible for a Westerner to understand, the North Korean existence is one in which the state has absolute control over its citizens: where they live, what job they take, and even how they think. It takes Lee years to free herself from this mindset, and one can only sympathise with those who never manage it.
But ultimately freedom, democracy and human rights are more important than comfort. The book ends with Lee determined to make a difference, flying to California for a TED talk and speaking at a UN Commission on human rights. She concludes on a note of hope, both for reunification, and for warmer relations between the North and South so that defectors “know, when they risk everything to escape, that they will not be lost for ever to the people they left behind, that they have supporters and well-wishers the world over, that they are not crossing the border alone.”
The Girl With Seven Names is in equal parts heart-breaking and inspiring. I can think of no better way to get a human glimpse into the mystery that is North Korea.
The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Hyeonseo Lee, William Collins, RPP 12.99.