Title: The Girl with Seven Names
Author: Hyeonseo Lee
Country: North Korea
Hyeonseo Lee gives readers a glimpse into her life. Born and raised in North Korea, she introduces the outside world to the abuse of her government. Always paranoid and suspicious of others, North Korean members of society must always be vigilant in making sure that they are consistently loyal to the government. Every neighbor is a spy. Even the government officials are on the prowl wanting to catch anyone in a lie or in a position where they are demoted in social status.
In order to survive, many citizens resort to smuggling in goods from China or Japan in order to sell on black markets in North Korea. While frowned upon, most smugglers have money to ensure their safety from the government via bribes. By all accounts, Lee’s position in North Korea is very privileged. She touches on the Great Famine of the 1990’s and how that doesn’t directly affect her food source, but how it affects those less fortunate. Many people die and they die in the public view, and the tragedy of a government that doesn’t respond to the suffering of their people.
Eventually, Lee escapes North Korea and has to endure China’s policies on refugees from NK, which aren’t friendly. She must survive by hiding constantly. Luckily she has assistance but it doesn’t diminish how difficult it is to truly escape NK.
In escaping, she experiences guilt in leaving her family behind. Nevertheless, the human will proves resilient and she learns how to live as best she can where she is.
Lee’s story is dramatic and very lucky. She finds help in unexpected places more than once. It also calls into question a country’s response to someone fleeing from an abusive country/government. Is it moral to turn someone away, to return them back to the dystopian government? Even China expresses remorse for their past policies. Lee navigates this question gracefully but does not shy away from the details that caused her life havoc.
While I learned a lot about how North Korea operates, the reason I give this book a 3 is for the writing style. It’s very straightforward, very bland at some points. Although it’s a page turner, certain things become trite, such as the habit of ending a chapter with something like, “I would soon realize things could get worse.” It happens so often that I often scoffed at the writing. And there are a few threads left untied, which happens, but the book ends rather abruptly.
I appreciate this book in its entirety, however, and recommend it to readers curious about North Korea. I believe we should not make fun of NK based on their success rate of keeping their citizens oppressed. This book made me realize that the people of other countries must make laws to help refugees and people in need; while there may be international laws that aide people like Lee now, we must make sure as global citizens to not let our own rulers close the door to safety. NK is a serious human rights issue and Lee’s account sheds light to that.