The Girl With Seven Names

Those of us who live in the West know that North Korea is a brutal regime. But what is that world actually like? I read The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee for book club. And what a read it was. Here’s the premise:

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumours of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

What aspects of North Korean life surprised or shocked me?

  • Indoctrination begins from birth.
  • There is a caste system called songbun in North Korea. If you’re fortunate, you belong to a high caste. It’s very difficult to improve your caste position. Falling down the caste system is relatively easy. “The hostile class which made up about 40 per cent of the population, learn not to dream. They got assigned to farms and mines and manual labour.”
  • It was unthinkable to defy one’s parent.
  • Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il, and now Kim Jung Un are revered almost like gods. Every family must have pictures of the dear leaders in their family. Inspectors come into your house and check to make sure these pictures are prominently displayed and impeccably clean. “They had to be the highest objects in the room and perfectly aligned. No other pictures or clutter were permitted on the same wall.”
  • Police “prowl the city looking for violators of North Korea’s myriad social laws – anyone in jeans, men whose hair was a touch too long, women wearing a necklace or foreign perfume – all of which were unsocialist and symbolic of moral degeneracy and capitalist decadence.”
  • Bribery is often the only way of making anything happen.”
  • There are informers everywhere: “Neighbours could be relied upon to inform on neighbours; children to spy on children; workers to watch co-workers; and the head of the neighbourhood people’s unit, the banging, maintained an organized system of surveillance on every family in her unit.”
  • heroin is one of the few products North Korean makes to an international standard.” It is sold abroad to raise foreign currency.
  • people are executed publicly. Neighbours and family members are expected to watch. Even little children.
  • in school, children have ‘life purification time’, or self-criticism sessions. “Everyone took turns to stand up, accuse someone, and confess something. No one was excused for shyness. No one was allowed to be blameless.”
  • independent though is discouraged. “We were not required to formulate any views of our own, or to discuss, or to interpret ideas in any subject.”
  • America is the enemy.
  • “Every child learned to subordinate their will to that of the collective.”
  • North Korea has a communist youth movement – the Young Pioneer Corps. Participation is mandatory. Members undergo military training.
  • “Kindness toward strangers is rare in North Korea. There is risk in helping others.”
  • North Korea is an atheist state. Anyone caught in possession of a Bible faces execution or a life in the gulag.”
  • suicide is taboo. “Not only is it considered gravely humiliating to the surviving family members, it also guarantees that any children left behind will be reclassified as ‘hostile’ in the songbun system … it is a highly emotive means of protest. The regime regards it as a form of defection.”

There’s much more but I’m sure that’s enough to make you shiver.

Hyeonseo Lee’s story of her own escape and the dangers she subsequently undertook to get her mother and younger brother out of North Korea is harrowing. Her bravery, determination and guts will amaze you. Hyeonseo says  that “curiosity had always been greater than my fear — not a good trait to have in North Korea, where fear keeps your senses sharp and helps you stay alive.” Somehow, she prevailed.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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