Monday, 21 May 2018

THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES by Hyeonseo Lee and David John

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read a review of it on ~ thank you for introducing me to it!

Genre: Memoir, non-fiction, adventure, North Korea 

'There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens.  The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in their brutal system...blurring morals so that no one is blameless.  A terrorised Party cadre will terrorise his subordinates, and so on, down the chain; a friend will inform on a friend out of fear of punishment for not conforming.  A nicely brought-up boy will become a guard who kicks to death a girl caught trying to escape to China, because (her attempted escape has made her) worthless and hostile in the eyes of the state.'

Hyeonseo Lee—or Min-young as she was in North Korea—is a defector from the Kims' brutal regime.  She escaped 'by accident', shortly before she was eighteen; all she had wanted to do was take a look at China, over the river, before her coming of age meant that she would be punished as an adult for any misdemeanours.  But when the time came to go back circumstances had made it too dangerous, and so she began her life on the run.

 Looking back at Hyesan, where Hyeonseo/Min-young grew up, 
from across the river in Changbai, China, where she first escaped to.

I've been wanting to find out more about life inside North Korea for ages, and was glued to this book.  If ever you wonder why people put up with these regimes in which your only privacy is the thoughts inside your headand not even these, if you betray the 'wrong' emotion by a facial expressionthis book will make you understand.  Min-young knew no different.  In North Korea, life centres around proving loyalty to the Kims.  It is like a religious cult on a huge scale, total brainwashing.  There is no contact with the world outside the borders, and all citizens are taught, from a very young age, to believe in the absolute power of the Kims.  They are spoken of as gods, with the belief instilled that they are admired and respected the world over, and that North Korea is the greatest country to live in.  Even the history taught to schoolchildren is untrue, re-told to show the Kims as great warriors and saviours of the people.  The great famine of 1996 (yes, a northern hemisphere country in which thousands starved to death, just twenty years ago) was blamed on the evil Americans instigating trade sanctions.  While the people were dying, the Kims lived like princes.

'We knew a family who'd been deported because the father had rolled a cigarette using a square of cut newspaper without noticing that the Great Leader's face was printed on the other side.  His whole family was sent to the mountains for a backbreaking life of potato digging'

This picture of Kim Song II at the mass games was made by thousands of children 
holding up pieces of coloured card.  Hyeonso and her friends would have to hold them up for so long that they had no option but to urinate in their clothes.

Of course, people are far from happy.  Corruption and trading on the black market is rife, and the only way to live more than the most meagre life.  That such practices are commonplace is not surprising, in a country which openly manufactures and exports heroin and crystal meth to boost its economy.

Hyeonseo/Min-young came from a relatively well-to-do family so did not suffer as some, but she visited provinces where the famine had hit hard, and there is no detail spared.  Her life in North Korea takes up only the first quarter of the book, which disappointed me slightly, but there is plenty more to come ~ during the next ten years she overcomes many, many brushes with the law, usually via informants, each time with the very real danger of ending up in the terrifying North Korean prison system for the rest of her life.  She suffers, too, missing her family and never knowing who she can trust, but she is an incredibly bright and resourceful young woman; truth being stranger than fiction, if you saw her character on a TV thriller series or read about it in a novel you might think 'no, too far-fetched; all that couldn't happen to one person'.

Near the end, when she helps others defect, she shows how getting out is not the end of the story ~ sometimes, those who have escaped do not know what to do with their freedom.  They miss their families, and the more simple life inside the walls of Kim World.  

It's a fascinating book, as well as being extremely readable, and I recommend it most highly.


  1. Fascinating, Terry, especially with the negotiations going on right now. I've read a fair bit of fiction about North Korea, these short stories are especially interesting (and tragic)

    1. Thanks for reading, Anne, and for further suggestions - yes, it's endlessly fascinating, isn't it? I definitely want to find out yet more!

  2. Great review, Terry. These are difficult times for this country so an individual insight is, as you say, fascinating. Thanks.

  3. Oh, I need this book now! Thanks for highlighting it, Terry. I have a bit of a weird 'thing' for North Korea. Great review.

  4. This looks like a really interesting read, Terry. Not my jam, because I read to escape, but I can imagine how enthralling it's got to be.