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The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee, Narrated by David John and Josie Dunn

Published July 2nd 2015, Audiobook: August 2nd 2019 by William Collins

5 Stars: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I recently read The Last Exile, a fiction story based on true events, dealing with young people defecting from North Korea. I learned a lot from that book, but wanted to know more. The Girl With Seven Names had been recommended to me a year ago by Carol at Reading Ladies (her review here) and I decided this was a perfect time to finally read/listen to this story. This was a difficult story to read due to the issues Hyeonseo Lee and her family dealt with. One of the things that really struck me in both these books is the amount of propaganda that is fed to the North Korean residents. It is taught in schools, homes and believed without fail in many cases, thus brainwashing its citizens. Because of this, many of the residents have no desire to leave and do not hesitate to turn in anyone that does not believe or behave in certain ways.

This story takes place over more than ten years. In the first ten years that she spent after escaping North Korea, she had escaped a brothel, survived a kidnapping, run away from a loveless engagement, and changed her name four times, was attacked on the street, robbed, conned, and arrested more than once. When she initially entered China, it was not to stay, but out of curiosity. Unfortunately, things did not work out that way. So why did she want to get her mother and brother out if this is what was in store for them? By the time she was seven she has watched her first public execution. Her father, or the man that she knew as her father, had been arrested and tortured. She also witnessed people dying from hunger during the famine, but the leader was fat and living in a huge home. China did not want North Korean defectors and would treat them harshly before returning them to face their fate, but South Korea would offer asylum, if you could get there. Hyeonseo was one of the lucky ones and with the assist of several kind souls, including friends, relatives, and a VERY generous stranger, she made it to South Korea and eventually gets her mother and brother there as well. Things do not go easily for Hyeonseo once she arrives in South Korea, so her story did not end there.

The audiobook was narrated by David John and Josie Dunn. Although I was disappointed that it was not performed by an Asian artist, the audio allowed me to hear proper pronunciations of words and language, which I know I would have struggled with if I had read this one. Hyeonseo Lee has a fascinating story to tell, and provides interesting information about North Korea, China, and South Korea. In truth though, Hyeonseo’s life in North Korea was relatively privileged, and she didn’t really share a lot of the horrors and difficulties many North Koreans deal with. Having said that, this is an excellent story that I highly recommend to those interested in learning more about North Korea, those who escape and those who remain.

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

About the Book: An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

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.

This is the unique story not only of Hyeonseo’s escape from the darkness into the light, but also of her coming of age, education and the resolve she found to rebuild her life – not once, but twice – first in China, then in South Korea. Strong, brave and eloquent, this memoir is a triumph of her remarkable spirit.

Freedom Isn't Free: An Interview with North Korean Defector Hyeonseo Lee

About the Author: Hyeonseo Lee is a North Korean defector living in Seoul, South Korea. She has completed writing her memoir, “The Girl With Seven Names”, which has been published in July 2015 in more than 20 countries. It has become a global bestseller.

Over 15 million people have viewed her TED Talk about her life in North Korea, her escape to China and struggle to bring her family to freedom. Hyeonseo has given testimony about North Korean human rights in front of a special panel of the UN Security Council, and has discussed the issues with important leaders such as UN Ambassador Samantha Powers.

She recently completed her undergraduate studies in English and Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and has been a Young Leader at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hyeonseo spends much of her time speaking about North Korean human rights and North Korean refugee issues, including speeches at the Stanford University Global Speaker Series, Princeton University, New York University Law School, and at various venues throughout the World. She has personally met public officials like UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the South Korean Minister of Unification, Yu Woo-ik, to discuss these issues.

Hyeonseo has written articles for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal Korea Real-Time, the London School of Economics Big Ideas blog, and worked as a student journalist for the South Korean Ministry of Unification. She has also been interviewed by the BBC, CNN, CBS News and numerous other television, newspaper and radio outlets throughout the world.

Hyeonseo Lee is planning to start an organization to help promising North Korean refugees interact with the international community.