A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.
Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.
Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).
Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.
She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.
In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.
The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.
The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.
She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.
The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.
But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.
Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.
So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.
Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).
Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.
As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.
After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.
Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.
It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”
These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.
SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.
I’m pleased to announced that I have signed a contract with history publishers Amberley Publishing for a book about Warwickshire to be published in June 2020. This will be a highly illustrated book full of stories arranged under themes from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.
The book will explore some of the supernatural and spiritual stories in the region. It describes a number of Warwickshire’s most iconic locations which I believe have spiritual resonance and which I’ve visited many times.
I’m weaving into this insights from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits. And I’ve also been out and about interviewing and listening to people closely associated with the properties who have rich and fascinating stories to tell.
More news on this to follow!
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path
On a recent visit to Bletchley Park I learned many new things about exactly how an elite group of mathematicians, chess- playing and crossword puzzle solving experts, numbering ten thousand in all, came together here during the Second World War to break seemingly impenetrable codes and ciphers – all under the veil of great secrecy.
The Nazis didn’t even know of Bletchley Park’s existence – and never realised their ingenious codes were being broken.
On the surface, this is a lovely Victorian manor house in an idyllic park – but it became the centre of an extraordinary community, the site of several huts housing codebreakers and the amazing machines some of them invented. Throughout the war years, those who worked here – many recruited through the medium of a crossword puzzle, whose solution was a job advertisement – undertook painstaking, repetitive, patient work, revealing the messages being passed by Hitler to his commanders, and other messages which gave vital information about Nazi plans and intentions.
It has been estimated by several historians that the work of the codebreakers probably shortened the Second World War by two years.
As we went around the park using the audio tour, and visiting the exhibitions in the various huts and in the manor house itself, I felt humbled and awed by the work of the codebreakers – and in particular I was impressed to stand in the office Alan Turing himself used.
For generations, the true achievement of all those people went unrecognised – because of the Official Secrets Act. But now we know, and since so much is known and understood now about the Second World War, and because there are so many films and books and first-person accounts available, we can comprehend the significance of what was achieved. And we also have the memories of those veterans who, during their twenties, worked at Bletchley Park, using their mathematical and deductive skills, their intuition and their mastery of logic.
It is sobering to reflect upon those who worked so long and hard and so patiently, to great ends. Each of them played a small but vital part in a massive undertaking. Many were modest and self-effacing in their later lives. Those who have seen the film The Imitation Game know of the great tragedy that befell Alan Turing later – a man to whom those who persecuted him, and millions of others, owed their lives. Because of the secrecy that shrouded his war work, the true nature of his achievement then was not widely known.
As I listened to the audio tour I heard accounts given by some of those who had, as young people, worked there in those huts. One of the ladies who spoke of that time said, “everybody here was a bit odd.” And I thought, yes: they would have been eccentrics, single-minded geniuses, those whom we might describe as idiots savant; those with autism and Asperger’s would have been numbered among them, capable of intense focus, of patient and tireless application to a long task with a greater objective in sight.
We owe them all an enormous debt, and their story is an inspiration of the highest order.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
author of Mystical Circles, a Passionate Spirit and A Perilous Path
I visited London one day recently and whilst there took the opportunity to do a bus tour of the city.
London was my home in the past (in the Bayswater area) for eight years. Also I was a regular visitor from Orpington during my childhood and teens, since I lived twenty five minutes train ride away. But on this occasion I thought it would be fun to view the capital through different eyes – those of a tourist – and to see if I learned anything new.
And I must admit the only new thing I recall learning was the location of the residence of Elton John. And the interesting information the tour guide revealed, that this was a nice little earner from him in between whiles, as he, a struggling musician, strove to get paid gigs for himself and his band.
But it was also a wonderful opportunity to take a variety of photos upstairs on the open top bus.
So here are some of the images I collected on that day, some taken on foot, and others from the top deck of the tour bus.
Perhaps it’s because I no longer live there, but instead am a frequent visitor, that I see London at its very best. I don’t think regular commuters, or those who live there, would necessarily see only the most delightful, intriguing and colourful aspects of the city!
But take a look at this post on my blog from seven years ago. There you will definitely see this great city through the eyes of one who can afford the luxury of a certain “distance” from the mundanities and challenges and stresses of city life, which may nevertheless give the space needed for fresh insights…
Psychological, paranormal mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
I recently made another visit to Kew Gardens, where we were enchanted by several glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly.
Placed in the most surprising areas – at the top of the Sion Vista, just outside the Temperate House, hovering over the pond in the water Lily House, or cunningly nested in amongst the tropical foliage in the Palm House, they enhanced and playfully transformed the natural shapes and forms to be found throughout these gardens.
A day of wonder and joy, as Chihuly’s multi-coloured art twisted and curled and rose and nestled among the already abundant beauty of Kew Gardens.
Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
Here’s a book which should appeal to those of you who feel as if you’ve reached a point in your lives where all that you hoped for has not been achieved; maybe it seems you have to let go of your dreams; and perhaps you simply don’t know where to go from here.
I met Sheridan at an author’s conference a couple of years ago. He told us his story, and spoke about his books and his broadcasting work, and then, having shared his own writing journey, he offered inspiration and guidance to the writers in the audience.
During the day he also offered his expertise as an experienced broadcaster, and asked for volunteers among us, to come up so he could interview us about ourselves and our books. I was one of those who volunteered, and it was a very helpful and enlightening exercise in the art of introducing yourself to a radio audience within a limited time-frame, in the most succinct and engaging way!
Sheridan is originally from Brisbane in Australia, though he now lives in Oxford in the UK. I find his observations about Brisbane and Sydney particularly poignant as I lived in Brisbane myself for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK.
I have another personal connection with the subject of Sheridan’s book: I visited Lindisfarne (Holy Island) myself three years ago. This island is a very special place, and I felt a strong spiritual presence there; a retreat on the island offers several ways to reflect upon your life and your place in the world and in the universe. During his promotional videos for the release of this book, Sheridan has included videos of Holy Island and of him walking across to the island from the mainland during low tide.
Through the medium of this physical journey between Lindisfarne and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Sheridan teaches us much deeper values which may apply to our own lives, especially those of us who may define ourselves by any of the following:
who we know
our dreams and ambitions
our job titles.
Do you, perhaps, suffer from imposter syndrome? This is an affliction that often applies to writers – even those whom the world might consider “successful”. Or, do you find that when people ask what you “do”, you respond with what you used to do?
These two pilgrims’ journey through the woods and fields and paths and roads of Northumberland then starts to parallel our own life journeys. During Sheridan’s description of the walk, he reflects upon periods in his own past life story. Places he and DJ visit give rise to memories of people he has known whom he now sees in a new light.
In all this, Sheridan’s purpose seems to be to shift our value systems, our vision of what really matters about our lives here on this earth. He interweaves biographical information about the Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert into his pilgrimage, giving us the opportunity to relate aspects of their journeys to our own.
One of the most striking sentences in the book is:
“Maybe when identity is lost we can discover who we really are.”
And the most challenging question:
“Could you be content having your contribution to the world left unknown or forgotten, yet known by God and pleasing to him?”
At the end of the book, Sheridan gives a series of questions to reflect on for each chapter, and several blank journalling pages if you wish to use the book as the basis for a much more in-depth project of self-knowledge. The book could be used as a group resource as well as an individual one; but if you were to study and work with the book as part of a group, that group would need to be one in which you felt safe and secure.
He also offers his own contemporary Creedwhich you may download from his website sheridanvoysey.com.
I give this book the highest possible rating, 5 stars, and I recommend it to all those of you who resonate with what I’ve written in this review.
I received a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path
A great garden is an image of paradise, in more than one religious outlook. Perhaps this is because within such a garden, all the very best of the natural world is taken by human ingenuity, and then gifted and skilled gardeners weave their own design and creativity into it. Our dreams become realised through a beautiful garden.
I remember once taking a tour with the Head Gardener here and he pointed out that the garden is defined by borders and obeys a structure closer to the house, and yet the further you wander from the house, the more you feel the garden becoming fluid and serpentine in its design, less structured, as if it is flowing into the land beyond.
And I remember him saying that they have protection rights over the view here, for the vistas are some of the garden’s most prized elements.
When I visited a few days ago (February 2019) the garden was of course still at the end of winter, beginning to move towards the opening-up time of spring.
Even so, its beauty is still apparent.
Enjoy the photos here and reflect upon how much we owe to those visionaries and dreamers who are able to bring what they imagine into reality, for the enrichment of the spirits of others.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path
Few things in this world can be more heartbreaking than a lost, abandoned or mortally-endangered child, in a world where there is precious little compassion or social justice.
Some of our most well-known archetypal stories play into this fear: Babes in the Wood is one, and Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl come to mind, along with many others.
And this fear is summed up in the word ‘foundling‘ which means ‘an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.’
In London at the height of the gin craze, as this famous Hogarth print shows, many babies, infants and young children were hugely vulnerable.
And it took a influential philanthropist, Thomas Coram, to set in motion the events that led to a solution – of sorts.
For even the solution, though it led to the physical care and nurture of such children, was limited by the psychological insight of the well-meaning people who operated the system. The noble intention of the philanthropists was to rescue these abandoned children and tend to their physical and moral well being in a safe environment and to eventually enable them to become “useful members of society“. Nowadays we might, instead, aim to help them “fulfill their true potential.” But such a concept was alien to the minds of many people in those times.
It took the wealthy and powerful to exert enough pressure to make the even wealthier and more powerful – i.e. the King – to agree that action should be taken. Thomas Coram asked twenty-one ladies of Quality and Distinction (see the exhibition at the Foundling Museum) to sign a petition to get something done.
The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 and the first babies were admitted in 1741; it was originally sited where the museum now stands, and later moved out to a country location. And in 1954 the last residential pupil was placed in foster care. But on that original London site now stands the Foundling Museum, incorporating some of the features of the original Hospital. A fascinating exhibition may be found there, detailing the story of the Foundling Hospital. And on the top floor is the Handel Museum, a tribute to the contribution of the great composer George Frederic Handel who was a great patron of the work of the hospital and who ultimately donated one of the original scores of The Messiah to the museum.
When I visited the Museum recently I found a very moving display of the tokens destitute mothers left with their babies when they gave them to the Foundling Hospital, in the hope of claiming their children again some time in the future: scraps of fabric, buttons, coins, keys, a hairpin…….
Only a small percentage of all the children who passed through the Hospital were ever claimed, and because they were given new names when they entered the Hospital, and their only chance of discovering their true identity was by being claimed by their mothers, many were robbed of what some might consider a birthright – the right to know who you are.
Nowadays I hope we may be moving towards a situation in the not too distant future where not a single child in that situation need be institutionalized – although it’s still far from being achieved. Instead they may be found new homes with loving families. And that of course is the vision which inspires the work undertaken by Lumos, the charity set up by JK Rowling.
This Museum is a treasury of the memories of ordinary people – not the rich and powerful and renowned, but the many souls who pass by the attention of the Historians, each one of whom, even when lost to time, represents a story of immense value.
Magnificent and imposing as the college buildings are, they were used as a hospital to house ex-sailors from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The sailors were all invalided out from the navy, some sick, others disabled, and their ages ranged from twelve years old upwards.
When you go on the tour of the Royal Naval College buildings and listen to stories of those sailors’ lives, you realise that the system under which they lived was highly regimented and that by our own standards they lived very restricted and controlled lives, under the iron heel of authoritarians.
Their daily routine was full of seemingly (to our ears) harsh compulsory elements, and they were given what we might consider now to be rather mean ale rations and slept in narrow confined spaces, which of course may well have been far better than the accommodation they had formerly had on board ship.
Regardless of their various disabilities or physical constraints, they were all required on a regular basis to climb the steps which led up to the grand Chapel, to attend services thee.Once again the tentacles of rigid authoritarian control reaching into and distorting the Christian faith… And yet, we always have to consider the times and the culture in which people lived and made these decisions.
The tour is to be highly recommended, and I do urge you to include Greenwich on your list of places to be visited, when you spend a holiday in London. You will need a full day to do justice to all that Greenwich has to offer. The Queen’s House too is now open and full of fascinating historical exhibitions. And from the upper floor you may obtain the most beautiful view towards the brave new world of the revitalised London docklands….