The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee is an inspiring story of courage and bravery as one woman struggles to keep her family together after separation that included varying periods of incarceration for each of the three-member family. It is an incredible (as in hard to believe) story but if a reader wanted to check the authenticity of some of the incidents cited, it could be easily done by examining public media reports. Imagine a Korean woman (Hyeonseo) meeting a western traveler in Laos who voluntarily gives money to Hyeonseo to aid in paying corruption money to get Hyeonseo’s mother and brother out of a Lao prison. There was not an exchange of favors for money and the traveler had no assurances of ever being repaid. The incident happened, the traveler was repaid, and the story was reported by the Australian press.
Hyeonseo was 17 years old when she decided to cross the border between North Korea and China. It was illegal but because she was under 18 years old, her punishment would be a slap on the wrist. If over 18, it would be jail time. She decided to take the risk because she thought it would be her last chance to see the town across the river, a town that seemed to always have electricity, far different than her own. She crossed the river, met a trading partner colleague of her mother and asked for help to make a trip to Shenyang to see a distant relative. While there she received a call from her mother. A day after crossing the river, the North Korean government began a census. It was noted that she was missing; her mother reported her as missing in an attempt to cover up the illegal crossing. She could not go home to North Korea; her eighteenth birthday had come and gone, she was stuck in China.
Hyeonseo was stateless, she had no identification papers in China. She stayed for such a long period of time with her relatives that there was thought of marriage just to get an ID and avoid repatriation by China. Hyeonseo thought marriage was just another type of incarceration. She had escaped, even if unintentionally, from North Korea; now she would escape from marriage. Leaving her relatives secretly, she went to another Chinese city with a Korean expatriate community where she fell into a trap set by human traffickers. Escaping from that, she went to yet another Chinese city where she purchased false ID and settled into an acceptable job. However, she felt she would never be accepted by the Chinese, she had false identification papers, and she missed her family. How could she reunite with them or even communicate with them without putting them in danger from the north Korean government?
Each time she changed location in China, she changed names. She would continue to do this in an attempt to avoid capture by an increasingly more efficient bureaucratic surveillance system. Missing her family and feeling unaccepted by China, she finally resolved to go to South Korea. She felt she would better fit into that society. But entry to South Korea would also have to be done illegally. Once she arrived in South Korea, she could claim political asylum, but getting there would involve subterfuge.
She got to South Korea, she got her mother and sister out of North Korea, the three of them eventually got to the United States. This is not a spoiler. The excitement in the novel is with the tricks and subterfuges necessary to make the many, many escapes.
The first one-third of the book Hyeonseo writes of her childhood in North Korea. She writes of struggles to survive hunger on the parts of most of the population. After the death of her father, she writes of her mother’s successful attempts to establish herself as a black market trader and a government official willing to accept bribes and gifts that were at the heart of North Korean bureaucracy. Her success allowed Hyeonseo to escape much of the hunger that the general population endured.
While in China she discovered some of the horrible truths about life under the North Korean regime. Things she considered normal everyday coping strategies to deal with an authoritarian regime were deplored by every country outside North Korea. Her former government and leaders were laughing stocks to the rest of the world. She asked herself a question. How could such a world exist? She answered the question and it is an answer that fits for all corrupt and authoritarian governments in the world today. What is the answer? I won’t reveal it. That would be a spoiler. Read the book.
I read this book in preparation for a writer and reader convention I will attend in Bali, Indonesia at the end of October 2016. One of the authors I will meet is a Korean lady who went undercover as an investigative journalist in North Korea. It would be nice if I could ask an intelligent question. Hyeonseo also gave A TED talk. Google to find it; it is an inspiring twelve-minute talk.