Hyeonseo Lee @ Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015

'Books are power' / CC
'Books are power' / CC

Hyeonseo Lee has published The Girl With Seven Names depicting her escape from North Korea. The book takes readers through her initial defection and through her struggle to rescue her family that were all still in North Korea.

Lee spoke of how children in North Korea were raised to say thank you to leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and how their pictures hung in every home as if they were gods. Until Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, when Lee was 13, Lee believed them to be just that and was shocked to discover they were actually human.

The system deprives the country’s inhabitants of their right to know of the outside world. Lee’s mother had been brainwashed for over 60 years. All North Koreans are taught from early years that Americans are evil and the country’s primary enemy. Images of Americans torturing and killing Koreans in the Korean War are used as propaganda, however they are taught that the British are gentleman. 

Lee talks of how families would disappear in the middle of the night because someone had spoken out or claimed something to be unfair; how they were placed in political prison camps, places everyone feared as no-one knew what went on within the walls. North Korea is a far cry from the “communist utopia” the country is advertised as. Schools are closed and children are taken to watch public executions. Lee was seven when she first witnessed a man being hanged. Homosexuals were executed, as were those who stole to feed their family.

Starvation is the biggest killer in North Korea with many homeless and begging on the streets. Lee discovered that even friends of hers had no food at all in their homes which came as a big shock to her. She had been raised to believe this was the greatest country on earth. At first she believed these horrors were down to the Americans, as that is what she had been taught and as there was no news and no outside broadcasts it was difficult to get to the truth.

However, Lee tells of how she would bar her windows and tune into those illegal Chinese channels thus continuing her journey of discovery. When she was 17 she defected to China and was hunted by Chinese police for ten years. It was only through lying about her identity that she managed to survive and deceive the police. She changed her name several times, hence the title of the book. Of it all, it was being separated from her family that was the worst. Many female defectors are sold into the sex trade or as bribes for men, though she had some narrow escapes she was one of the lucky ones.

Lee admits she was young and naive cheap doxycycline malaria tablets when she left North Korea and it was more curiosity that led her to cross the border and discover the truth. The family Lee went to – family she had never met before – filled her in on this truth. However this family also tried to push her into an arranged marriage, Lee smiled as she says she “didn’t escape to China for marriage”.

After thirteen years away from her family Lee managed to contact her mother and discovered how heavily censored her family now were. The government knew Lee was not simply missing and that she had defected and were set on finding her. Even her mother’s friends had been made to spy on her for years to ascertain the whereabouts of Lee.

Lee took a big risk and decided to bring her family to her which was incredibly difficult; the only help she received was from an Australian man who paid prison fees when her family were imprisoned and became the only person Lee could trust.

From 2010 Lee decided she had to learn English as she needed to tell her story. Her intelligence and determination is palpable and her optimism is inspirational. She believes that North Korea is beginning to wake up and that the next government will be a better one. However, no-one can create a revolution right now, the regime is too strong. Lee still believes she could be assassinated and was too fearful to publicise this event incase of spies. When asked if she misses anything from North Korea she declares “everything”, a surprising statement but as she explains North Korea was her home for seventeen years, her memories live there. It is the dictatorship that is terrible, not the country.

Lee rather bashfully discusses her personal life as she tells of her North American husband – a great shock to her mother who spent two years trying to dissuade her from dating an American. But Lee has come to realise that Americans are humans, very kind as all Westerners are. She was surprised to discover that in the West people greet each other even without knowing them which was very alien to her. In North Korea they have self-critical sessions where everyone is to criticise others. They are not taught to love as Westerners are, they are taught to criticise.

The Girl With Seven Names contains a harrowing content, as the event itself did. Yet Lee’s bright, hopeful personality has shone through all the horrors she has faced, and continues to face. There was such a feeling of warmth and admiration from the audience and it is guaranteed that everyone left feeling a little bit changed by it.


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Christine Lawler 42 Articles
Christine has a passion for literature and has been a closeted writer since childhood. Other passions include theatre, film, and all things geeky. She lives in Glasgow with a cat named Molls and a tortoise named Haruki Kabuki.

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