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

“This is when I understood that we can do without almost anything – our home, even our country. But we will never do without other people, and we will never do without family.”

This book was a heartbreaking read, to be honest. No matter how much we follow global politics, the human aspect of it usually stays hidden. This memoir of Hyeonseo Lee, a North-Korean defector, is one such book that will startle you despite the obvious expectations from its content.

It is filled with both imaginable and unimaginable horrors and it reminded me more than once of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is chiefly divided into three parts: “The Greatest Nation on Earth” describes her childhood in North Korea, “To the Heart of the Dragon” is about her initial escape to China and defection to South Korea and finally “Journey into Darkness” is about her efforts to rescue her brother and mother. Despite the obvious surety that she is safe now, I found myself gasping and worrying for her as this memoir almost paced like a modern thriller.

Another important point that this book touched was the life of defectors after they have defected. Having lived their entire lives till that point in North Korea, these people literally have no idea how the world works. In an interview of the author, she mentions how most North Koreans who defect do so in pursuit of money or food or living amenities, but never for freedom. Why? Because North Koreans are oblivious to the fact that there is some problem in their country in the first place. For them, they are the citizens of the ‘greatest country in the world’ ruled by the ‘Great Leaders’ who can actually ‘hear their thoughts’. Freedom is introduced to them once they are out, as an after-effect. In words of Hyeonseo Lee:

“Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe.”

The book is a must-read for everyone because we, as a society, need to both understand our positions of privilege as free citizens of a democracy as well as the distress of those who are suffering for no other reason than just being born in the wrong country.

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