Book Review: the Girl with Seven Names: Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.

The Girl with Seven Names – Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

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.

Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace,  not only crafted characters we love and  care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. war-and-peace-bookSo during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.

Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.

In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation  we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.

Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space,  we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”

Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”

So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives,  it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”

I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.

I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world.  (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).

Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.

A Man We Owe Our Freedom To

On a recent visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London, I experienced in my imagination what it would have been like to work as part of Winston Churchill’s team underground during the Second World War.

As I walked through the offices and passed the displays and spent time in the Churchill Museum, I was particularly struck by the meaning of the words Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

These facts stood out for me afresh:

1) If Winston Churchill had died a few years earlier he’d have been a brilliant failure.
2) He entered office as Prime Minister at the age of 65.
3) His inspirational speeches made a profound impact on the outcome of the Second World War by raising the morale of the nation.
4) He was a difficult man personally, yet he inspired admiration and loyalty and devotion in all who worked for him.
5) We owe our freedom to him.
6) Times were uncomfortable and hard and restricted, yet people accepted it.
7) His speeches move us even now, and we can apply them to our lives even 67 years after WW II ended.

Another thing that shone out was the personal account of Churchill’s secretary – she described what it was like to type out his letters as he dictated them to her.

As someone who has had experience of numerous bosses in this kind of office situation, I thought to myself, He sounds like a nightmare boss. I’d have hated working for him!

And yet those who worked for him had only admiration, devotion and loyalty. One of the comments his secretary made was especially meaningful: “Sometimes what he was saying was so interesting, I would forget to type.”

I would recommend a visit to the Churchill War Rooms to anyone visiting London. It is a profoundly moving experience, which should make you look at your own daily life, and even your place in history, and in this world, with new eyes.

Promises of Freedom and a World That Refuses To Be Healed

I’m off on holiday for a week. While I’m taking a break from my laptop my blog will be quiet. However there’s a post or two in the pipeline for when I get back – but you can expect a delayed response to any comments etc.

Mystical Circles new edition
Mystical Circles new edition pub. August 2012

Meanwhile, though, consider this thought from an excellent book I’ve just read, Jeff Goins’ “Wrecked”:

The world is broken and remains that way, in spite of our efforts to help it…. In a world that refuses to be healed, we must face the fact that we are not the heroes of our stories. It teaches us to rely on something bigger than ourselves and teaches the source of true compassion.”

I think this is a very profound statement: an acknowledgement that the world “refuses to be healed”.

I spent the first part of this book relating what Jeff Goins says to my own life experiences; and the next part seeing those experiences in a new light, and perhaps making sense of them. Finally the book challenged me to go beyond my comfort zone and to be willing to behave in ways that are “counterintuitive”. I found this book very moving and penetrating. It is full of wisdom, compassion and humanity.It’s an ideal book for young people to read – and the sort of book I wish I’d read during my university years.

In my romantic suspense novel “Mystical Circles” you will meet a number of people who ostensibly do want to be healed, and have come together – into a very beautiful, idyllic place – for that very purpose.

Not necessarily physical healing – but healing in mind and spirit.

You will also meet somebody who believes he can heal, and that he is the hero of his story.

We enter an esoteric community of people all of whom have come here with a range of different emotional and psychological and spiritual needs.

Freelance journalist Juliet believes she’s only here to rescue her sister from the arms of charismatic Craig, the group leader. And she feels distinctly put out when the group members start targeting her with questions about her own feelings and  “needs”.

“Therapy or treatment?” queries one of the group members, Edgar. “What about those, Juliet? Have you ever had any?”

“No. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with you, dear. But you’ll have needs. We all have those. And they are what have brought us here.”

Craig promises to “heal” the members of the group. This is what his brochure promises:

If you’ve been searching all your life, but have so far not found what you’ve been looking for, you’ve come to the right place. Here at the Wheel of Love, you may sharpen your subtle knife and cut a window into heaven. There are no limits to what you can achieve here: only those you impose upon yourself. You’ve chosen to come so we promise to supply the necessary tools. If you accept these tools and use them well, you’ll enter a freedom you’ve never dared dream of.

Craig will reach deep down into your spirit and touch a part of it you never knew was there.

Read the novel, and judge for yourself whether Craig – and numerous people like him whom you may meet  – delivers on his promises.