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The Girl with Seven Names, A North Korean Defector’s Story

Danger, hunger, terror, coldness, fear – these are not just words; they describe the reality of someone less fortunate than others. They describe Hyeonseo Lee’s life, today a North Korean defector, and her journey of escaping the country. One day in 2013, the world has learned her name and the truth about life in North Korea.

Standing on the stage in front of hundreds of people in the State of California, she nervously but bravely presented the book “The Girl With Seven Names” and for the first time, opened a little window into the real world of North Korea and her personal experience in it. Why seven names? On the very first page of the book, she introduces each name as an individual character, and each name signifies a change in Lee’s life. “When I was little, I thought my country was the best on the planet,” she told the audience. “And I grew up singing a song called ‘Nothing to Envy’ and I was very proud.”

North Korea is a caste-based country, and Lee’s mother was among the lucky ones who belonged to Songbun, the caste system classified as loyal. The girl later found out that she had privileges living in one of the few loyal caste systems in the country. The childhood she had wasn’t the best, but it was a happy one. Whoever has heard Hyeonseo Lee’s story finds it hard to believe that she loves her homeland and still misses it. 

Although I often wondered about the outside world, I thought I would spend my entire life in North Korea until everything suddenly changed.

North Korea borders China, and North Korean refugees are not met in China with open arms, quite the opposite. The battle escapees have to fight settling outside North Korea sometimes becomes so unbearable that they give up. “Even for those who have suffered unimaginably there and have escaped hell, life in the free world can be so challenging that many struggle to come to terms with it and find happiness,” the author wrote in her book. “A small number of them even give up and return to live in that dark place, as I was tempted to do, many times.”

How does one flee from North Korea? Such decisions are not made overnight. First, as a little girl, she saw people being publicly hung, kids starving, parents never talking about politics, people being arrested for having foreign goods, everyone being suspicious of each other, and so many other things that seemed normal to Hyeonseo. She simply believed everything she was told by her teachers in the kindergarten, every heroic story they fed the kids. Little Hyeonseo wholeheartedly believed that “Kim Il-sung created everything in our country. Nothing existed before him.” She knew no other truth. What was outside of this country? Or even what’s across the river where they lived nearby? And the questions began to pop up in a greedy girl’s mind as she started growing up. 

Later in her teens, Hyeonseo saw famine for the first time. She saw a woman with her two-year-old son being pale and bone-dry. Not only that, but the country was starving to death, and even worse – cannibalism. And she wondered, “Isn’t North Korea the greatest nation on earth?”

Hyeonseo’s long journey started with visiting relatives in China. She wanted to see China before starting college but didn’t know that it would be a visit that lasted for ten years. Hyeonseo’s uncle told her stories that started shattering her whole world. She heard North Korea being criticized for the first time in her life.

Hyeonseo Lee

After a month of living a Shenyang life, she received a call. Her family was in trouble, the authorities were looking for her, and she could not go back home. She couldn’t go back home, nor stay with her uncle and aunt – Hyeonseo got caught in a wedding trap, and that’s not the life she wanted. She had to escape.

And there she was – all alone in one of the biggest cities in China with no one by her side and with little money on her hands. A little naive but strong and persistent, she had to find her way in a new country where her origin wasn’t welcomed. Nothing seemed to be easy there – all the dangers were just right around the corner. Her heart would leap into her mouth when there was a risk of her being exposed. She became paranoid and one day, the police came after her. If only there were enough words to describe the emotional ride she was going through in a car with those policemen. Hyeonseo didn’t think about what could happen to her, but what could happen to her mother and brother. At her interrogation, she was calm and confident. Her made-up story about her family origin and excellent mastering of the Chinese saved her this time. But what did she feel?

As I walked, my relief began turning into depression. I was already hiding beneath so many lies that I hardly knew who I was anymore. I was becoming a non-person.

For all the years Hyeonseo lived in China, the only thing she dreamed about was reuniting with her family, and she needed a plan and some connections to make it happen. Even if her plan of reuniting could fall through, she wanted to let them know that she was alive. She was desperately looking for brokers who could help her to get her family out of North Korea, but it was the sums she couldn’t possibly afford.

Hyeonseo knew she needed an ID to get her life on the right path and with that document, she could feel that she actually exists. This ID card was her lucky ticket into the corporate world in China; she got a job as an interpreter and secretary at a South Korean tech company. Hyeonseo could finally feel legal, yet people from her previous life would come back and steer her heart with fear. “Wherever I go, even in a country as big as this, the truth will catch up with me.”

Everything that happened in Hyeonseo’s life after that was full of the fear of being caught, recognized, or reported by someone, taken as a prisoner by a gang or being attacked by a stranger. All of this had happened in her life, yet nothing stopped her from following her own path. Her love for family moved her like some invisible, irresistible force. And love once again took over when she fell in love and moved to South Korea. And that’s when she told her truth – North Korean asylum-seeker, and her new country accepted her. 

Settling down was not the easiest thing to do, even with the help of the South Korean government. Two countries that have been divided for so many years were different in all aspects. How does one feel about being Korean, where one Korea doesn’t exist?  She was confused and challenged. But nothing could cover the huge hole in her heart when she thought about her family. Hyeonseo was sending money from South Korea, but one time, it caused her family a lot of trouble. She knew she had to get them out of it, whatever the cost.

Speaking no Chinese, her family had a big risk of getting caught. Hyeonseo had to tell officers that they were deaf people, but it didn’t work all the time. Every time they got caught, Hyeonseo would pay a bribe and get them out, but money wasn’t infinite. When they were arrested once again, she had no money to pay the bribe, and it seemed that all these efforts were for nothing. But the universe didn’t let her lose all hope, and a stranger appeared. “Helping North Korean people,” he said and gave her the money. Soon, she was reunited with her family in Seoul. 

And then she finished the story of her book “The Girl With Seven Names,” and the audience stayed silent for a minute. The literature lovers in California indeed didn’t expect to learn the dark side of the other side of the world that night. Indeed, not all the heroes wear capes: a young lady with a gut to flee the cruel dictatorship dared to face all the consequences of her choice.

Fleeing the scariest dictatorship in the world, settling in a new place, starting from scratch with a little money – it takes courage, but what does it take you to tell your story to the world as Hyeonseo did? Her TED talk speech has been viewed by more than 15 million people, her book has become a global bestseller, she’s given speeches at the top universities around the world, and it would have never been possible if it wasn’t for her courage and strong will. Some are born in horrible living conditions, other people have no parents, different circumstances seem to be dictating the life we are living, but we often forget that we are the ones capable of changing the course of our life.

Yulia Kralevska

Lufian's Writer. I believe that trying something new, testing your strengths, challenging yourself is what makes your life bright. Life is short, so don’t waste your time! Just make the first step in following your dreams!

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