“The Girl with Seven Names” by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story(Author: Hyeonseo Lee) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: North Korea)


This is the second book that I have read, which tells the stories of North Korean defectors, the first being Nothing to Envy.

I debated with myself whether I need another book for my book world trip, but what set my mind was the idea, that while Nothing to Envy is a story told through a “middle man”, The Girl with Seven Names is an autobiography. Ultimately, now I can say that the difference between the two books is mostly in the way they view the subject. Hyeonseo Lee tells her own experiences, the life as she knew it, the world as she was taught to view it. However, Barbara Demick‘s book is more of a collection of stories, told through the prism of someone who knows the political situation well and could define the difference between what the defectors were experiencing, and what they knew about the world, versus what was actually happening. While this is mentioned in Lee’s narrative, she talks about it more in retrospect, as when certain political and historical situations were unfolding, she was oblivious to the facts, having been indoctrinated in the North Korean values.

For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a very valuable and interesting look into North Korea, and especially the way the people there view the world. But more so, as Hyeonseo Lee says so herself, she was not even from the lower classes of society, so she had it better than the rest. And “better” was not starving to death, not being sold as a bride in China, not being invited to serve and please the “leader”.

I think it’s really hard for any of us, even those, like me, who have lived in a communist, or post-communist country, to imagine the level of poverty, corruption and censure that people experience in a country like North Korea. I’ve witnessed firsthand only one somewhat similar country, that I’d rather not name, and it saddened me deeply how much people need to put up with to gain even their basic human rights, how much bribery is needed to not be falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit, or how little you have, and yet learn to live with. That is not to say that I’m not seeing remains of this to this day in my own country. There was one particular sentence in The Girl with Seven Names, which reminded me of how Bulgarians can be, and which is something that I’ve heard even from foreigners who otherwise like or even love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people:

“North Koreans have a gift for negativity towards others, the effect of a lifetime of compulsory criticism sessions.”

While to my knowledge, people haven’t had those criticism sessions here, I feel like pessimism and negativity are only two of many things that get born from regimes like the one in North Korea. So in many ways, the book was both very alien and unimaginable, but also very familiar, and close to home.

The fact which saddened my while reading both The Girl with Seven Names, and Nothing to Envy, is how North Koreans are treated while trying to defect. I would understand the unnecessary repercussions if North Koreans were not wanted in South Korea. But knowing that South Korea welcomes them, for all the countries around to stop the defectors, imprison them, or return them to North Korea to be punished or even executed, seems the highest level of inhumane.

While reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky Hyeonseo Lee was in comparison to other defectors. At the very least, she managed to get out, and save her family, and even become a spokesperson about the rights of North Koreans. But what about all of those who were detained, killed, or maybe even worse…?

I think that books like this one are such which every person should read. Especially those who live happy little lives in a rich country in the West, and have no understanding of how the world works, or how bad some people have it. I’m sorry if it seems harsh, but the lack of empathy in some countries has reached levels which are so high that should be criminal. We’re all people, so we shouldn’t just accept that we deserve to have it better than others.


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