Authors: Hyeonseo Lee
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This eBook first published in Great Britain by William Collins in 2015
Copyright © Hyeonseo Lee 2015
Hyeonseo Lee asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Maps by John Gilkes
Cover photograph by kind permission of the author.
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Source ISBN: 9780007554836
Ebook Edition © July 2015 ISBN: 9780007554867
‘I have spoken with countless numbers of defectors over the years. When I first met Hyeonseo Lee, the unflinching manner in which she told her story, although full of sadness and hurt, was inspirational. That is the story now written in this book.
As a young girl living on the North Korea–China border, she had grown up aware of two different worlds – the monochrome of her homeland and the bright, vibrant colours of another world just across the river. Her act of escape marked a new chapter in her life. But once she crossed the border, she learned that the warm glow of China’s alluring lights was not meant for her.
She experienced hunger, coldness, fear, terror, threats and pursuit. All this she had to endure simply for being a North Korean refugee. Every time she navigated treacherous terrain and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she had to change her name to protect her new identity. She became the Girl with Seven Names.
But one thing that she held on to was her humanity, ever stronger as she continuously sublimated her hardships into hope. This is a sad and beautiful story of a girl who could not even keep her name, yet overcame all with the identity of what it is to be human.’
Jang Jin-sung, founder of New Focus International and author of
Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea
‘This is a powerful story of an escapee from North Korea. In the hallowed meeting rooms of the United Nations in New York, ambassadors from North Korea recently sought to shout down stories like this. But these voices will not be silenced. Eventually freedom will be restored. History will vindicate Hyeonseo Lee and those like her for the risks they ran so that their bodies and their minds could be free. And so that we could know the truth.’
The Honourable Michael Kirby, Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Abuses in North Korea, 2013–14
To protect relatives and friends still in North Korea, I have changed some names in this book and withheld other details. Otherwise, all the events described happened as I remembered or was told about them.
Long Beach, California
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.
I am standing in the wings of a large stage, listening to the hundreds of people in the auditorium. A woman has just blushed my face with a soft brush and a microphone is being attached to me. I worry that it will pick up the sound of my heart, which is thumping in my ears. Someone asks me if I’m ready.
‘I’m ready,’ I say, though I do not feel it.
The next thing I know I’m hearing an amplified announcement. A voice is saying my name. I am being introduced.
A noise like the sea rises in the auditorium. Many hands are clapping. My nerves begin to flutter wildly.
I’m stepping onto the stage.
I feel terrified suddenly. My legs have turned to paper. The spotlights are faraway suns, dazzling me. I can’t make out any faces in the audience.
Somehow I motion my body toward the centre of the stage. I inhale slowly to steady my breathing, and swallow hard.
This is the first time I will tell my story in English, a language still new to me. The journey to this moment has been a long one.
The audience is silent.
I begin to speak.
I hear my voice trembling. I’m telling them about the girl who grew up believing her nation to be the greatest on earth, and who witnessed her first public execution at the age of seven. I’m telling them about the night she fled across a frozen river, and how she realized, too late, that she could never go home to her family. I describe the consequences of that night and the terrible events that followed, years later.
Twice I feel tears coming. I pause for an instant, and blink them back.
Among those of us who were born in North Korea and who have escaped it, the story I am telling is not an uncommon one. But I can feel the impact it is having on the people in the audience at this conference. They are shocked. They are probably asking themselves why a country such as mine still exists in the world.
Perhaps it would be even harder for them to understand that I still love my country and miss it very much. I miss its snowy mountains in winter, the smell of kerosene and burning coal. I miss my childhood there, the safety of my father’s embrace, and sleeping on the heated floor. I should be comfortable with my new life, but I’m still the girl from Hyesan who longs to eat noodles with her family at their favourite restaurant. I miss my bicycle and the view across the river into China.
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. Even for those who have suffered unimaginably there and have escaped hell, life in the free world can be so challenging that many struggle to come to terms with it and find happiness. A small number of them even give up, and return to live in that dark place, as I was tempted to do, many times.