“The Girl with Seven Names” – An Interview with Hyeonseo Lee

Nora Hamdi Asia, Culture and Arts, Korean Peninsula

Hyeonseo Lee“The Girl with Seven Names”, out on the 2nd of July 2015, follows the arduous journey of Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector, when she one day decided to leave her country. Twelve years later, she returned to the border in a daring mission to bring her mother and brother across the border, which would turn out to become one of the greatest tests of her life.

The International Interest conducted an interview with her, published below, which delves into the sentiments that she felt both during and after her story.

I.I: When you started Kindergarten, you wrote that it was the point when you realised that you belonged to the State. Are there ever still moments today when you feel that for certain parts of you, this may still be the case?

I don’t feel like any part of me still belongs to the state, since I was able to rescue my family and guide them to freedom. And I think like many North Koreans who have left, we feel proud of our decision to leave and completely break away from the state. However, sometimes I feel like I can never completely escape from the grasp of the regime. Defectors live in fear of their lives even in South Korea, since there have been assassination attempts and other kinds of harassment and threats from North Korean agents. Also, I surprisingly still hear North Korean propaganda repeated by uninformed or pro-North people in South Korea and even in Western countries. So it’s very frustrating and unsettling to know that wherever I go, some people will still repeat the same propaganda as the oppressors that I escaped.

Finally, although I don’t feel like any part of me still belongs to the state, like many other defectors, I still my miss my homeland and the people that I grew up with. So sometimes if I hear a North Korean song or see an image of my hometown, I feel nostalgic.

I.I: In North Korea, you seemed to have had a relatively happy childhood. Has your defection and arrival in other countries overshadowed your childhood and made you doubt how comfortable it was by comparison?

I didn’t know anything else except the lifestyle I had in North Korea. My life seemed normal to me until I noticed people were suffering around me and that my country was not the best in the world, based on what I saw on Chinese TV and the Chinese development across the river from my home. After I learned the truth about my country, I was absolutely outraged that our leaders were mistreating their people so badly . One of the worst offences perpetrated by the regime is the brainwashing and intellectual suffocating of the North Korean people. The regime is so worried about its people learning to think for themselves and develop their own country that they go to great lengths to trick them and keep them down. This is unforgivable. So I actually feel a little bit guilty since my father was in the military and we had a comfortable life because he was helping to uphold the regime, even though I don’t think he knew the reality.

I.I: If you could go back in time and visit yourself the moment before you crossed the river to defect, what would you say?

I would say: you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. Don’t cause your mother so much pain, and don’t put yourself through so much turmoil. If you are really going to leave the country, you have to do it with your family together. The separation will be almost unbearable.

I.I:  In China you were able to settle down eventually and blend in. However, your emotional state was naturally volatile due to your internal confliction surrounding your decision to defect. When you look back to those days, do you believe it was worth it?

As I mentioned above, I had no idea that it would be such a big problem to leave the country. I thought I could come back quickly. Some people tell me that it must have been worth it in the end to defect alone because I was able to reach my freedom. But it’s not worth putting my mom and brother through so much pain and separation. I also experienced so much mental anguish due to the separation.

I.I: Your experience in Laos and the corruption you faced will be shocking to many readers, for instance, when you were accused of being a criminal for aiding your mother and brother. Could you explain the reason for this almost paradoxical hostility towards North Koreans and the support for the government? Do you believe this can change?

I think there could be several factors at play. First, Laos is still a communist country and has maintained ties with North Korea. The North Korean regime treasures other countries including China and South East Asian countries like Laos to repatriate defectors. So Laos doesn’t easily let them come through and considers anyone who is helping them to be breaking the law. I also noticed that Laos is a relatively poor country and is riddled with corruption. I think they were trying to squeeze me for all the money they could get out of me, so they claimed that I was a criminal even though I was just trying to help my family pass through their country and reach the safety of South Korea.

I.I:  In North Korea the prospect of reunification is drilled into citizens minds from a young age as a very real possibility. Do you still believe today that the two Korea’s can reconcile?

I do believe reunification will occur someday, but I believe that day is in the very distant future. Even if the Kim dynasty was removed from power in North Korea, the group of leaders under Kim have little to no incentive for reunification because they would certainly lose power. The leadership and their loyal cronies are willing to go to great lengths to keep their power, including brainwashing the people, throwing anyone who dissents into prison camps or even having them publicly executed.

I think a more realistic hope for my lifetime is to see the travel restrictions loosened or removed in North Korea, so that even though there are two separate countries, North Korean defectors can return home to visit their family and friends, and North Koreans can leave their country freely. It is my sincere hope and the hope of other defectors that some reformers will eventually take power in North Korea and see the benefit of opening the country economically and to the outside world in general.

I.I: Finally, how are your mother and brother doing? I hope they are doing well 🙂

They are both doing well thank you. It was very difficult for them to adjust at first. They both left behind close friends and family, and had originally never considered coming to South Korea until I ask them to come. The transition was especially hard on my mom, who had a close knit family back in North Korea and missed her brothers and sisters very much. She cried herself to sleep every night for a while after she first arrived in South Korea. But as time passed, things got better.

We even had a few laughs together during the difficult adjustment period regarding the use of new technology. For example, my mom had never used a bank, much less an ATM in North Korea. So when she saw one for the first time in South Korea, she asked me how a little person could work inside the machine with no windows all day. We still have a good laugh about that today. Overall it’s just been a crazy, bewildering experience for her, from the arduous journey to the transition to her new life in South Korea. But she’s doing much better these days.

Our interview came to an end, and I felt myself instilled with an overwhelming level of respect for Hyeonseo. “The Girl with Seven Names” is out now in the UK, and I recommend it to every single reader of this article. Not only does she undertake the courageous job of speaking out against the state of North Korea, she teaches us the real values of love, respect, freedom and family.