Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “The girl with seven names” by Hyeonseo Lee

This book tells the astonishing true story of a young woman’s escape from North Korea. I found it at turns shocking, horrifying, inspiring and heart-warming.

Aged 17, Min-young (as she was then known) crossed the border illegally into China, alone and unsure of what she was going to do once she got there. The night she left, she told her mother she was going to a friend’s house. It would be twelve long years before she and her mother would meet again.

The girl with seven names
“The girl with seven names” by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (2015)

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many cliffhangers in it. For a large part of the tale, particularly the latter two thirds, I was constantly on the edge of my seat. Hyeonseo Lee’s journey, which took her into various parts of China and eventually into South Korea, was peppered with knife-edge situations and the ever-present fear of being discovered as a North Korean defector.

The first few chapters of the book describe Lee’s childhood and upbringing, and I found the descriptions of life in North Korea frequently depressing. The closed nature of the country makes it endlessly intriguing to those of us on the outside, but for those inside it must be a brutal and terrifying place to live.

North Korea’s dictatorship demands total loyalty to the despot; anything less is considered a criminal offence and swiftly dealt with by torture or execution. The country’s citizens are brainwashed to such an extent that they believe their leaders to be gods, and live in constant fear of their dictator’s barbarity. Hyeonseo Lee witnessed her first execution aged when she was just 7 years old.

As indicated by the book’s title, The girl with seven names, Lee had to keep changing her identity to avoid being detected as an illegal immigrant in China. Her incredible courage, determination and resourcefulness eventually paid off when she gained asylum in South Korea, more than a decade after leaving North Korea.

While some defectors, like Lee, succeed in escaping to safety, others are tragically caught and returned to North Korea to face beatings and death camps. There are also those who find it so difficult to adjust to life in the free world that they choose to return, knowing they’ll face savage treatment for their disloyalty.

Thanks to the bravery of the defectors who speak out, the rest of the world is learning more about this secretive nation. The decision to leave, however, is never straightforward. Once defectors have turned their backs on North Korea, they often become completely cut off from family and friends, live with the guilt of leaving their loved ones behind, and struggle to make new lives for themselves in countries vastly different from the one they know.

Hyeonseo Lee now lives in the USA with her American husband and campaigns for human rights. She believes North and South Korea will one day be reunified, but admits that achieving this will be extremely challenging.


4 thoughts on “Book review: “The girl with seven names” by Hyeonseo Lee

  1. I recently saw a talk at a meeting by a 14-year-old girl who had escaped from North Korea. The story was complex and she was crying through mush of her speech. She was appealing for all of us to beg China not to return defectors (China has an agreement with N Korea). Most of the audience were in tears too. How lucky we are to live where we do.


    1. That sounds very moving, and so young to have escaped. Hyeonseo Lee’s story was also very complex, and she was constantly on the alert for people looking to send her back. At one point, after living in China for a couple of years, she was interrogated by the Chinese police, but she’d learned her cover story well and managed to convince them she wasn’t North Korean. I thank my lucky stars to have been born in a free country. It’s hard to imagine how North Korea continues to function the way it does.


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