Defector’s story shows complexities of freedom

Escaping North Korea was the easy part. In her memoir, “The Girl With Seven Names,” Hyeonseo Lee, as she is called today, takes us on her gripping journey from the Ryanggang Province of North Korea where dustless portraits of the Great Leader and Dear Leader hang in every home to life as a defector in China and beyond.

Due to a high social ranking and a mother skilled in bribery, Lee has a more privileged upbringing than most in North Korea. However, the extra food and occasional luxuries cannot shield her from the oppression that accompanies living under the rule of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. And so, one month shy of her 18th birthday, with little more than curiosity and a rebellious spirit compelling her, Hyeonseo Lee says goodbye to her mother under the guise of going to a friend’s house and crosses the iced-over Yalu River into China.

Thus begins a torrent of uncertainty and an unexpected path in which Lee must figure out how to navigate her way in a foreign country with no money, no documents and no rest from fear of being caught.

It is the kindness of family, friends and even strangers that enables Hyeonseo Lee to survive. However, as she slowly carves out a new identity, each small victory is marked with sorrow as she aches to reconnect with the mother and brother she left on the other side of the river. With a heart tethered to people residing in a country out of her reach, and an independence only granted by being outside of that country, as Hyeonseo Lee struggles to carry on, we find ourselves longing with her for the two realities which, for this woman, cannot exist together – freedom and family.

Perhaps the richest part of the story is Hyeonseo Lee herself. She is a real, textured human with flaws, and her vulnerability in the writing makes for a thrilling story that not only provides suspense for readers, but also frustration, compassion and everything in between.

Hyeonseo Lee’s work is a rare, fascinating glimpse into the daily life of growing up in North Korea, and the consequences that accompany defectors. Freedom, as it turns out, is much more complicated than first imagined.


The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

By Hyeonseo Lee with David John

William Collins, 320 pages