Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey.
After reading Barbara Demick’s brilliant Nothing to Envy, her group biography of several North Korean defectors, I was fascinated by the topic. I knew next to nothing about North Korea beyond headline basics, and that book hits you on the head with everything you don’t know but should.
I started coming across this extensive sub-genre of North Korean defector memoirs and collecting them as fast as I could. I knew already from the intensity of Demick’s book that reading on this topic isn’t something to be done quickly or in rapid succession. Breaks are necessary.
I’d seen Hyeonseo Lee’s Ted talk so I picked her book to read first, once I’d recovered enough from Demick’s. I’m glad that I’d begun reading more in this area considering what’s been in the news recently. The New York Times published reviews yesterday of several books intended to inform about hot-button topics like the Kim family and nuclear war; it’s clear how heavily this has been weighing on the mind.
And it’s a good technique – North Korea’s braggadocio and behavior is clearer and more understandable (meaning: I get why it’s happening) now that I’ve read some insider takes on the country, how it operates, and impressions of the Kims.
Sympathetic people…would sometimes express their bewilderment that the Kim dynasty had been tyrannizing North Korea for almost six decades. How does that family get away with it? Just as baffling, how do their subjects go on coping? In truth there is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless.
Hyeonseo Lee (I’ll use that name, although as the title indicates she’s got plenty) grew up in Hyesan, a city on the North Korean-Chinese border. At age seventeen, she escaped across the Yalu River to the Changbai region of China, intending her absence to be temporary. More than a decade passed before she saw her family again.
Lee describes in detail her life with her family before the escape, and after. She couldn’t keep ignoring that all was not as it seemed, or should be, in her homeland. People were missing, killed, starving, surveilled, controlled, and sent to gulags.
No one spoke openly of the gulag. We knew of it only through terrifying rumors and whispers. We did not know where the camps were located or what conditions there were like. All I knew about was Baekam County, a less extreme place of punishment not far from Hyesan. We knew a family who’d been deported there from Pyongyang 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 on the 10.18 Collective Farm.
It’s a long jump from living like this into another country, and she chronicles how she changed and struggled while doing what was necessary to survive. She describes the lucky instances of fate or kindness from others, along with her own perseverance, that allowed her to survive and make her way outside of the isolated, controlling country where she was born. As she loses her lifetime of indoctrination, she makes observations about North Korean society that are especially moving:
“To know that your rights are being abused, or that you are abusing someone else’s, you first have to know that you have them, and what they are. But with no comparative information about societies elsewhere in the world, such awareness in North Korea cannot exist.”
First in China then in Seoul, South Korea, she attempts to build a new life while negotiating the world with a naiveté that can only come from the isolation she endured as a North Korean.
I was surprised by how many of her experiences echoed those told in Nothing to Envy. It’s like reading stories from the Holocaust, people keep telling the same horrifying details over and over.
I loved this division of her life and memories by what name she used at a certain time. It gave such a weighty underscoring to her experiences and her attempts to blend in multiple countries, her fear at various illegalities, and the sense that she was always running or hiding despite her biggest crime being escaping from an oppressive, totalitarian country. Just the gravity of that, I can hardly comprehend it.
Watching the Olympics from the safety of her community in Seoul, Lee experiences an eerie identity crisis. She wanted to root for North Korea, her true home, even knowing what she then did about the government and its treatment of its people. She had spent so much time in China that she also felt Chinese in a way, but that didn’t really fit her entire identity and experience either.
And of course, she carried a South Korean ID and lived there, but it also didn’t feel quite home.
“I wanted to belong, like everyone else around me did, but there was no country I could say was mine. I had no one to tell me that many other people in the world have a fragmented identity; that it doesn’t matter. That who we are as a person is what’s important.”
This was something so interesting to me among defectors – you’d think after escaping a country of regime-managed fear, starvation, poverty and control that defectors would be able to throw themselves with unmatched enthusiasm into life in a free country, especially South Korea, where, as North Koreans they’re invited to claim citizenship. But it’s a struggle to adapt and adjust, and always this question of identity remains. Lee focuses beautifully on these issues and defines how they affected her.
It’s simply written but poignant. Lee, with the help of writer David John, does a lot with simpler language, still managing to create vivid pictures and descriptions. I particularly loved her chapter titles, something I don’t usually pay more than passing attention to. There’s a poetry or lyricism in some of her lines and titles.
An eye-opening, detailed account of the many lives a brave young woman has already lived between disparate, dangerous worlds.
The Girl With Seven Names:
A North Korean Defector’s Story
by Hyeonseo Lee with David John
published July 2, 2015 by William Collins