As a child, Hyeonseo Lee believed that her country, North Korea, was the best place on the planet. It wasn‘t until the devastating famine in the 1990s that she began to question what she had been taught. She escaped to China in 1997 at the age of 17, by crossing a frozen river, and embarked upon a life in hiding as an illegal alien.
Hyeonseo’s memoir, The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, became a New York Times bestseller after being published in 2015. It is described by HarperCollins as ‘an extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.’
Catriona Mitchell: Hyeonseo, was there a specific moment in your upbringing when the truth about North Korea hit you for the first time – and you began to see that what you had always believed, and what was actually true, were very different things?
Hyeonseo Lee: Three different stories slowly began to change my mind. First, when I was 14, I saw the dictator’s funeral. Our founder Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and I had believed he was God; not only me, but all North Koreans believed that truly he was God. But God couldn’t die. That was a really shocking moment. Until then I believed he didn’t even go to the bathroom like us. That was the very first realization where I realized: maybe he’s a human like me.
The second thing was, we had a big famine in North Korea – it killed more than one million people from the mid 1990s to early 2000s. During that time, I saw so many dead bodies on the street. I was living on the border with China, but China looked to me like a completely brilliant new world. In my country people were dying on the street, but there [across the river, on the opposite bank*] were people on a picnic on the riverside, they were dancing, singing, and their fashions were so colourful: yellow, red, blue… I had learned from school that North Korea was even superior to China. It really confused me that the education I learned from my school, and the reality I could see with my eyes, was different.
And the last one, which is really important: in my home we had a television, and it could pick up a few Chinese TV signals. It is illegal to watch foreign content in North Korea until today, but I secretly watched. It was dangerous but I was kind of addicted to seeing outside my country for the first time. In North Korea there is only one TV channel. In China… I couldn’t imagine how it is possible with so many channels, and I saw cities in China that were like paradise compared to my country. I was confused about what was true. To find the answer I had to see China with my own eyes, not through the TV or through my imagination.
All that contradictory information must have put you through a very difficult mental process.
You know, I lived with that confusion my entire life until I crossed the border into China at the age of 17. In North Korea no one could find out the truth because we had no Internet, no foreigners to tell us… even though I began to doubt, and felt there was something strange, I didn’t know the answer until I crossed the border.
In China I began to know the reality. It was shocking, and hard to believe what I heard about North Korea.
How long did it take for you to fully accept the truth?
It took many years, actually, to really, truly believe… but certain things I could accept very quickly. The biggest one was the economic gap. Compared to China, North Korea was completely dark. Even though I believed that my dear leader was the best human being on this whole planet – every person respected the leader, that’s the reasons of propaganda – the completely different life standard in China, the freedom that I had never tasted in my whole life in North Korea… the economy gap hugely affected me.
How did you physically escape from North Korea, into China?
There is a huge river between North Korea and China. In the location where I was living, it’s freezing during winter-time – the average temperature is minus 20, minus 25. So I walked across the border over the frozen river.
Many North Korean defectors, until today, have to risk their lives: they have to be prepared to die or be sent to prison or to a public execution. I was one of the lucky cases, because I was living right on the border with China, and because of that my family had a really good relationship with the border guards. They were my family and friends, they were my uncles, they were my brothers… something like that. So they needed my family, and we needed them, and we helped each other out, living in that area.
However I didn’t know I was escaping my country. I only thought that after seeing China with my own eyes, I would come back to my home, because that’s where my mother, my brother, everyone lived. I couldn’t even imagine separation with my family forever.
Many people think crossing the border into China is the most difficult part of the journey for North Korean defectors, but actually crossing the border is the beginning of the whole epic journey.
Tell me about the title of your memoir: The Girl With Seven Names.
My name, Hyeonseo Lee right now, is my seventh name. After my escape to China, in order to not be repatriated back to North Korea I had to change my name many times, so that I could avoid the public execution, or a political prison camp.
I was even in interrogation with Chinese police officers, but my Chinese language ability was too good at the time. They couldn’t even believe that I was a North Korean girl.
That moment of interrogation was so terrifying, you thought your heart was going to explode. When you think about it now, do you still feel affected by the danger you were in at that time?
Of course. I have a bit of a heart problem: in normal circumstances I am very easily shocked, more than normal human beings.
Crossing the border was really scary, and then there was interrogation with Chinese police officials, kidnapping by gangsters, I was almost sold to brothel, I escaped from arranged marriage when I was 19, and then in 2010 I brought my family from North Korea to China, and it was an epic journey… So many shocking experiences happened in my life that really just broke my heart.
So even today very little small things make me shocked. We see on the street many police cars, right? At least once a day, I guess. To me, the image of a police car is so scary because in China, the police were trying their best to catch the North Korean defectors on the street. Even when I see a police car here in South Korea where I have freedom right now, the first moment I am really shocked, and in the second moment I reassure myself that I am ok.
Your lowest point came when you helped your mother and brother escape from North Korea, but they were jailed in Laos. You didn’t have any money to pay the bribes necessary for their release. However, a stranger on the street saw your distress, listened to your story, and went immediately to an ATM to withdraw the money required.
You were reunited with that man (an Australian by the name of Dick Stolp) some years later. What happened when you met him that second time?
It was the year 2013, right after my TED talk. We were united in Sydney, Australia, at a television show. Actually I didn’t know he was coming. I was really shocked: I felt like I saw my father. Even though he was totally a stranger to me, and even though at the time I didn’t know how to speak English really well, and we are not the same nation or race, I felt he was my father, because he was just the first human being on this whole planet who helped me without any reward.
He’s my hero until today. He changed everything. Until meeting him, I thought this world was so cruel. When people found out that I was in a vulnerable situation, they were always trying to take their benefit from me. But through his behaviour I realised that angels are not only in novels or in movies, they are actually walking among us. His beautiful action made me open my mind.
At that time I asked, “Why are you helping me?” and he said, “I’m not helping you, I’m helping North Korean defectors.” I looked up at the sky and that was the first moment I realised wow, I didn’t know the sky is this beautiful. That was the very beginning of motivation for me to learn English: I realised that our story needs to be told to the international community, and we need the support from the international community. To do that I had to learn English. His behaviour helped everything.
Hyeonseo Lee with Dick Stolp
In telling your story in English, what have been the benefits for you personally, and also for political refugees from North Korea?
Personally it’s a little painful. I feel like it’s mental torture sometimes. Most of the time I don’t want to keep being reminded. But doing this work, I live with this every day.
Sometimes I couldn’t start writing, or there was a certain point where I had to stop, because thinking about what happened in the past, I felt like I was like in a time machine: I was back at that moment, struggling to get away from the Chinese police or the border guards. The memory is so vivid, and the feelings are still alive, that’s why it’s really painful.
Telling my story is not beneficial to myself, but it’s helping bring awareness about the other North Korean defectors, whether they are hiding in China, or have found freedom in South Korea – but even there it’s not easy.
The people in North Korea are living in a virtual prison until today; they die without ever knowing the truth or freedom or human rights. I’m doing this is in the hope that this affects my homeland a little bit, because I believe that no tyranny can last forever.
*Hyeonseo Lee grew up next to the Chinese border, in a place where North Korea and China are separated by a river. From her side, Hyeonseo could see life on the Chinese side of the river-bank.
Hyeonseo Lee’s memoir, The Girl With Seven Names (with David John) is available for purchase here.
All photos here are courtesy of, and copyright, Hyeonseo Lee.
At the time of this interview, Hyeonseo Lee was about to fly from her home in South Korea to Washington DC to meet Donald Trump at the White House. She was thinking deeply about the questions she would ask him. BRAVA will report in about that visit, if possible.