My name is Hyeonseo Lee. It is not the name I was born with, nor one of the names forced on me, at different times, by circumstance. But it is the one I gave myself, once I’d reached freedom. Hyeon means sunshine. Seo means good fortune. I chose it so that I would live my life in light and warmth, and not return to the shadow.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 90-92. Accessed: 8/19/2017


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.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 113-114. Accessed: 8/19/2017


People in the hostile class, which made up about 40 per cent of the population, learned not to dream. They got assigned to farms and mines and manual labour. People in the wavering class might become minor officials, teachers, or hold military ranks removed from the centres of power. Only the loyal class got to live in Pyongyang, had the opportunity to join the Workers’ Party, and had freedom to choose a career. No one was ever told their precise ranking in the songbun system, and yet I think most people knew by intuition, in the same way that in a flock of fifty-one sheep every individual will know precisely which sheep ranks above it and below it in the pecking order. The insidious beauty of it was that it was very easy to sink, but almost impossible to rise in the system, even through marriage, except by some special indulgence of the Great Leader himself. The elite, about 10 or 15 per cent of the population, had to be careful never to make mistakes.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 217-223. Accessed: 8/19/2017


Her safekeeping of the cards ensured the family’s high songbun. Those who destroyed their cards as the Americans approached were later to fall under suspicion. Some were purged violently and sent to the gulag. For the rest of her life, my grandmother wore her Party card on a string around her.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 237-239. Accessed: 8/19/2017


Her safekeeping of the cards ensured the family’s high songbun. Those who destroyed their cards as the Americans approached were later to fall under suspicion. Some were purged violently and sent to the gulag. For the rest of her life, my grandmother wore her Party card on a string around her neck, concealed beneath her clothing.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 237-240. Accessed: 8/19/2017


For all her education in Japan and her progressive communist credentials, my grandmother belonged to a generation that saw love as a secondary matter when it came to a suitable match. Financial security came first. With luck, the couple could fall in love after the marriage.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 243-245. Accessed: 8/19/2017


My mother had severe regrets about leaving Hyesan, knowing that she would not be able to visit her mother and siblings easily or often, but at the same time she knew that we were leading a privileged life. Most North Korean families never got to go anywhere. They stayed in the same place all their lives and needed a travel permit even to leave their local county. My father’s job gave him access to goods most other people didn’t have. We ate fish or meat with most meals. I did not know then that many North Koreans ate fish or meat so seldom that they could often remember the dates on which they did so – usually the birthdays of the Leaders, when extra rations were distributed.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 372-376. Accessed: 8/19/2017


From an early age I helped my mother clean them. We used a special cloth provided by the government, which could not be used for cleaning anything else. Even as a toddler I knew that the portraits were not like other household items. Once, when I pointed a finger at them, my mother scolded me loudly. ‘Never do that.’ Pointing, I learned, was extremely rude. If we needed to gesture towards them, we did so with the palm of the hand facing upward, with respect. ‘Like this,’ she said, showing me.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 386-389. Accessed: 8/19/2017


I was too young not to believe every word. I believed absolutely that this heroic family had saved our homeland. Kim Il-sung created everything in our country. Nothing existed before him. He was our father’s father and our mother’s father. He was an invincible warrior who had defeated two great imperial powers in one lifetime – something that had never happened before in five thousand years of our history. He fought 100,000 battles against the Japanese in ten years – and that was before he’d even defeated the Yankees. He could travel for days without resting. He could appear simultaneously in the east and in the west. In his presence flowers bloomed and snow melted.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 471-475. Accessed: 8/19/2017


The Bowibu didn’t watch from street corners or parked cars, or eavesdrop on conversations through walls. They didn’t need to. The citizenry did all that for them. Neighbours could be relied upon to inform on neighbours; children to spy on children; workers to watch co-workers; and the head of the neighbourhood people’s unit, the banjang, maintained an organized system of surveillance on every family in her unit. If the authorities asked her to place a particular family under closer watch, she would make the family’s neighbours complicit. Informers often received extra food rations for their work. The Bowibu weren’t interested in the real crimes that affected people, such as theft, which was rife, or corruption, but only in political disloyalty, the faintest hint of which, real or imagined, was enough to make an entire family – grandparents, parents and children – disappear. Their house would be roped off; they’d be taken away in a truck at night, and not seen again.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 490-497. Accessed: 8/19/2017


It was at school in Hamhung that I received my initiation into ‘life purification time’, or self-criticism sessions. These have been a basic feature of life in North Korea since they were introduced by Kim Jong-il in 1974, and are the occasions almost everyone dreads. They start in elementary school and continue throughout a person’s life. Ours were held every Saturday, and involved my entire class of forty students. Our teacher presided. Everyone took turns to stand up, accuse someone, and confess something. No one was excused for shyness. No one was allowed to be blameless.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 635-639. Accessed: 8/19/2017


If I couldn’t face accusing someone I’d sometimes accuse myself, which was permitted. Or a friend and I would strike a deal where she would criticize me one week, and I would criticize her the following week with some prearranged made-up charge. And so my friend would stand and say: ‘Our Respected Father Leader said that children must focus on their studies with dedication in their hearts and a clear mind.’ Then she’d point at me. ‘In the last week I have noticed that Comrade Park is not listening in class.’ I would hang my head and try to look chastened. The next week would be my turn. That way we stayed friends. My mother would make a similar pact with colleagues at her workplace; so did Min-ho when he got to elementary school. The sessions taught me a survival lesson. I had to be discreet, be cautious about what I said and did, and be very wary of others. Already I was acquiring the mask that the adults wore from long practice.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 645-652. Accessed: 8/19/2017


On one occasion, in my final year of secondary school, a boy in my class pointed at another boy and said: ‘When I went to your house, I saw that you had many things you didn’t have before. Where did you get the money to pay for them?’ The teacher reported the criticism to the headmaster, who reported it to the Bowibu. They investigated and found that the family had a son who had escaped the country and was sending them money from South Korea. Three generations of the family were arrested as traitors.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 653-656. Accessed: 8/19/2017


As the famine deepened, rumours of cannibalism spread throughout the province. The government issued stark warnings about it. We heard that an elderly man had killed a child and put the cooked meat into soup. He sold it at a market canteen, where it was eaten by eager diners. The crime was discovered when police found the bones. I thought these killers must have been psychopaths, and that ordinary people would never resort to such crimes. Now I am not so sure. Having spoken to many who came close to death during that time I realize that starvation can drive people to insanity. It can cause parents to take food from their own children, people to eat the corpses of the dead, and the gentlest neighbour to commit murder.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 1435-1440. Accessed: 8/20/2017


I was getting used to another new name. Ji-hae, Min-young, Mi-ran were behind me. My name was now Soon-hyang and I wore it like a new bud.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2089-2090. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Our Respected Father Leader commands that we respect our elders and honour our families. I have noticed that Comrade Mi-ran does nothing but hurt the people closest to her. Would she agree that she is a person of bad character? Yes. That’s what I was. A bad person.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2118-2120. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Back to your parents. What is your father’s date of birth? Your mother’s? And then, casually, as if asking the day of the week: ‘When is Kim Il-sung’s birthday?’ April 15th. A question any North Korean could answer without thinking. ‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I said.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2227-2229. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Thank you, my dear father, with all my heart. Thank you for making me study Chinese for all that time at school. Chinese characters take years to master. That final test had dispelled the last doubts in their minds. My father had saved me.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2254-2256. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Their next-door neighbour, Mr Chang, who had been so angry that time I phoned him, had been convicted of selling North Korean women as brides and prostitutes for Chinese men. That explained his reaction to my call. He was under investigation by the Chinese police at the time. He died soon after starting a ten-year prison sentence, and his wife had gone insane. Mr Chang was a human trafficker? To think that I had almost knocked on his door that night after crossing the river, but instead chose Mr Ahn.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2335-2339. Accessed: 8/20/2017


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. A terrorized Party cadre will terrorize his subordinates, and so on down the chain; a friend will inform on a friend out of fear of punishment for not informing. A nicely brought-up boy will become a guard who kicks to death a girl caught trying to escape to China, because her songbun has sunk to the bottom of the heap and she’s worthless and hostile in the eyes of the state. Ordinary people are made persecutors, denouncers, thieves. They use the fear flowing from the top to win some advantage, or to survive.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2397-2402. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Many of the passengers disembarking with huge holdalls and rucksacks were people like Yee-un and me. Young migrants, some of the thousands arriving every week in the biggest, brashest city in Asia to start new lives, to be someone, make fortunes, create new identities, or to hide. Back in Shenyang I’d sometimes felt like a special, secret visitor. Here I was utterly insignificant. This realization was alienating and exciting at the same time. Here, perhaps I could be anyone I wanted to be.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2493-2496. Accessed: 8/20/2017


The identity had belonged to a Korean-Chinese girl who, the lady in Harbin told me, had a mental illness. Her parents wanted to raise money for her care by selling her ID. It had cost me all the money I had saved in Shanghai, but now I was legal, or at least I could pass for legal with little fear of discovery. As if sensing my new status, within days the city was lifting the curtain onto a much brighter side of life.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2546-2549. Accessed: 8/20/2017


The first time I walked into the Pyongyang Okryugwan and sat down I felt I was back home. The waitresses spoke Korean with the strong accents familiar to me, and wore their hair in the conservative fashion of North Korea, almost unchanged since the time of the Korean War. They were polite but reserved when engaging with customers. They knew they were each being watched by their co-workers. They were forbidden to form friendships with any customer. I guessed that at night they were confined to a dorm and not permitted to go out into the city.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2577-2581. Accessed: 8/20/2017


One evening in my second year in Shanghai I arrived at the Pyongyang Okryugwan to find it closed. The next morning the gossip was all over my office – a waitress had run off with one of my company’s South Korean clients, a friend of my boss the director. Rather unwisely, the man had hidden the woman in his apartment. The North Koreans reported the disappearance to the Shanghai police, who questioned the staff, quickly identified the customer, and went straight to the man’s apartment. Both were deported, he to South Korea and she to North Korea and her fate. I never found out for sure who the waitress was, but I had an awful intimation it was the friendly one who’d wanted a boob job. Two months later the restaurant reopened with completely new staff.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2597-2603. Accessed: 8/20/2017


She told me that she had visited several fortune-tellers over the years since I’d been gone, ‘I don’t know where my daughter is but I miss her.’ She couldn’t say I was in China. ‘She is not in our land.’ Every one of them said that. One said: ‘She is like the one tree growing on rock on the side of the mountain. It’s hard to survive. She is tough and she is smart. But she is lonely.’ ‘She is well, do not worry,’ another said. ‘She is living like a nobleman’s wife in China.’

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2685-2689. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Most of the addicts in China were getting high on crystal meth made in North Korea. Like the opium of the past, crystal meth, though just as illegal, had become an alternative currency in North Korea, and given as gifts and bribes. ‘Omma.’ My voice was a furious whisper. ‘Do you know what that is? It’s highly illegal.’ ‘Well, lots of things are illegal.’ In her world, the law was upside down. People had to break the law to live. The prohibition on drug-dealing, a serious crime in most countries, is not viewed in the same way – as protective of society – by North Koreans. It is viewed as a risk, like unauthorized parking. If you can get away with it, where’s the harm? In North Korea the only laws that truly matter, and for which extreme penalties are imposed if they are broken, touch on loyalty to the Kim dynasty. This is well understood by all North Koreans. To my mother, the legality of the ice was a trifling matter. It was just another product to trade.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 2729-2736. Accessed: 8/20/2017


I spent two hours being questioned alone by her in a windowless room, and watching her taking notes. When I thought we’d finished, two other men in suits and open-necked shirts arrived. They were older, one in his forties; the other, with steel-grey hair, in his fifties. From the way she greeted them, I understood that they were her superiors. Then she left. The men started questioning me all over again, from the beginning. They also didn’t believe I was North Korean. The older man had an aggressive edge to his voice. By this time I was tiring and getting hungry, and starting to lose the thread of the questions. The irony. In Shenyang, I’d had to convince suspicious police that I was Chinese, not North Korean. Here, I was trying to do the opposite.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 3135-3141. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Almost all of them considered me soft, and a fraud. ‘You would never have survived Thailand,’ was a common snipe. ‘You’re not North Korean, are you?’ was another. ‘You look and sound Chinese.’ I let them believe whatever they wanted – I owed them no explanation – but their attitude saddened me deeply. They were on the cusp of freedom, yet their negativity was so caustic it could have dissolved the bars on the window. North Koreans have a gift for negativity toward others, the effect of a lifetime of compulsory criticism sessions.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 3185-3189. Accessed: 8/20/2017


I had grown up in a communist state where the Fatherly Leader provided for all. The most important quality for all citizens was loyalty, not education, nor even the capacity for hard work. Social status was fixed by the songbun of one’s family. In South Korea, too, social status matters a lot, but here it is not hereditary. It is determined through education. And although education is a great leveller in South Korea – even the children of the wealthy get nowhere if they do poorly at school – it brings with it oppressions of its own. It is partly the reason why South Koreans are, according to surveys, the unhappiest people in the developed world.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 3364-3368. Accessed: 8/20/2017


Because North Korean defectors are usually in low-paid, low-status jobs, they are looked down upon in South Korea. The discrimination and condescension is seldom overt, but it is felt. For this reason many defectors try to change their accents and hide their identity when looking for work. I was deeply hurt when I learned this. I had kept my identity secret for years in China. Would I have to hide it here, too?

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 3378-3381. Accessed: 8/20/2017


When we’d go for a night out, some of the girls my age would arrive in luxury Western sports cars. Their parents had impressive job titles in the Korean conglomerates. Yet I had nothing – no family, no job, no degree, no money. I had no back, as the South Koreans say, from the English word ‘background’, meaning that I had no connections, no support. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I’d shared a similar belief system in North Korea. Uncle Poor had grown up in a high-songbun family, but he’d ignored family advice, married the girl from the collective farm, and had sunk in the social scale. Kim could rebel against his parents, run away with me, and marry me. We might even be happy for a year or two. But the romance would fade. The disappointment he had caused his family would gnaw at his conscience. Life with me would wear him down until, as I imagined had been so with Uncle Poor, he’d conclude that his marriage had been a big mistake.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 3398-3405. Accessed: 8/20/2017


I had thought carefully about the next section of the journey. A flight to Kunming would have been fastest, taking just six hours, but it was out of the question. The airport authorities would certainly scrutinize our IDs. The train would take two full days, but ID checks on trains were even more worrying because they would be face to face. The least perilous option was going by road. It would be gruelling. With all the transfers and waiting times, I figured the journey would take a week. And although there would be more police checks, the driver usually handed all the IDs to the policeman who’d check each with a handheld machine, but wouldn’t match them against the owners. We braced ourselves again. We were going to cross eight vast provinces of China by coach.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 3819-3825. Accessed: 8/20/2017


He held out his hand. ‘My name’s Dick Stolp. From Perth, in Australia.’ I shook his hand. I had not even asked his name. He turned to walk away but I held on to him. In halting English I said: ‘Why are you helping me?’ ‘I’m not helping you.’ He gave an embarrassed smile. ‘I’m helping the North Korean people.’ I watched him go.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 4150-4153. Accessed: 8/20/2017


I showed my wallet to the immigration officials and explained my predicament. I had $800 that Dick had given me on the last day when he realized I didn’t have enough for my fare home to Seoul. It was sufficient for a one-way ticket. The woman took all the cash and handed back my passport and phone. ‘Don’t ever come back to my country in this way,’ she said. ‘If you do, you’ll be imprisoned as a broker. However …’ She gave me the most insincere smile I’d ever seen on another woman. ‘You may return as a tourist.’

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 4309-4313. Accessed: 8/20/2017


A week before my mother and Min-ho emerged from Hanawon I decided to have the long-overdue talk with Kim. I did not want to postpone it any longer. My family was about to join me. A new chapter was beginning, and I knew Kim would not be a part of it. My experiences had made me a realist. I was not going to be a romantic fool hoping that he’d defy his parents and marry me, nor did I expect him to. He’d never done anything to displease his family. Pining over lost love was for TV dramas, not for me. My priority now was to help my mother and Min-ho adjust to a new life. I had to move on.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 4408-4413. Accessed: 8/20/2017


‘I’m in Changbai.’ His voice rang strange, as if we were in a dream. ‘I’m looking across at Hyesan right now.’ ‘You shouldn’t go that close. Someone might recognize you.’ ‘Nuna, I’m very sorry to tell you this. I’m going back.’ ‘That’s not funny.’ ‘I cut my hair today, dumped my jeans, and bought trousers that look North Korean.’ My blood froze. ‘What? When?’ ‘Now. I’m crossing back now.’ I screamed. ‘Min-ho, you can’t.’ ‘Yoon-ji’s mother will take care of everything. It’ll be like I never left.’ I tried to focus. I had to stop him. I felt a horrible tension building in my head. ‘Min-ho, listen to me. Once you go over, you can never come back. Think about this.’ ‘I have no future in Seoul,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if I can handle college. In Hyesan, I can marry Yoon-ji. I know what to do to make money.’ ‘You’re not sure, because you’ve just arrived and it’s still scary. But after a year or two, you’ll be fine.’ He fell silent and I could hear him breathing deeply.

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Kindle Edition. loc. 4510-4522. Accessed: 8/20/2017


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