Book Review: The Girl With Seven Names

The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyenseo Lee is an eye-opening recounting of one woman's journey from mental enslavement to freedom, as well as a coming of age story in the midst of a harsh reality.
The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyenseo Lee is an eye-opening recounting of one woman's journey from mental enslavement to freedom, as well as a coming of age story in the midst of a harsh reality.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyenseo Lee. I've been experimenting with non-fiction and biographies lately, and in my last "trip"[1] to the bookstore I decided to pick up books from cultures I didn't know anything about. I think it's pretty safe to say none of us know much about North Korea (other than the fact that the US does not want them to have nuclear weapons). When I saw this, I thought it would be an interesting read and a chance to learn about the world's most secretive nation.


As the title suggests, the story follows a young girl's escape from North Korea—including the seven names she must assume to keep her safe during the journey. Unlike most of the memoirs of North Korean defectors, Ms. Lee's story isn't that of a disgruntled citizen searching for a better life. It is the story of a middle class teenager pushing boundaries and unknowingly setting her life on a course she never dreamed about.

What I Learned

North Korea actively uses propaganda to control their citizens' thinking, specially about western countries like the US. While the US doesn't particularly attempt to control our thoughts about particular countries, what we are taught (or not taught) has a profound impact on how we view each country. Before reading this book, when I heard "North Korea" I imagined a gray, police state where the people are miserable—essentially I imagined 1984. This book opened my eyes to the complexities of such a society. I've always known that perception changes your reality, but it never occurred to me that North Korea was so closed to the rest of the world that the people living there wouldn't even know there is a better life outside its borders.

Ms. Lee's family was actually one of the well off families in the country, reaping benefits such as special housing and extra food rationing. At the onslaught of a famine, known as The Arduous March in North Korea,[2] her family barely feels the impact. It is only chance experiences with those outside her family that lead her to realize something is happening. Ms. Lee's revelation that her home country isn't the greatest country in the world and that she has been lied to her whole life unfolds slowly. It is a reminder that the most efficient way to enslave someone is through the mind.

This book doesn't just teach you about North Korea, though. Ms. Lee spends roughly 10 years in China. Also a communist country, China has friendly relationship with North Korea. Refugees are not seen as people who need help, but as illegals who need to be sent back. If she had been caught in China, Ms. Lee would have been sent back to North Korea, possibly to her death. The journey to a country willing to help is perilously long. Many who escape have to travel from the North Korean-Chinese border into countries like Laos or Vietnam (of which it is still not guaranteed that they will be safely sent to South Korea). That is almost like driving from one coast to the other coast of the US. Imagine having absolutely nothing and needing to make your way from California to Atlanta without being detected.

Sanctions and Trade Wars

I've never been one to study policy concerning embargo or sanctions. However, reading about the famine that occurred in North Korea, I started to become curious. When we purposefully hurt a country's economy, it is the every day people that suffer, not the leadership. Think about the US: our senators and presidents have all well off, most are millionaires. In a catastrophe, it would be us that suffered, not them. Of course, even when humanitarian groups provide food for a place in need, how do you insure those who need it can receive it? I became much more interested in this topic after reading this book.

Book Quality

I found the book to be well written. I became invested in the characters and wanted to see what would happen. For those used to fiction, this book still reads as an interesting narrative.

Overall Thoughts

Overall I found this book to be deeply inspiring, heartbreaking, and eye opening. I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn what other have gone through. It will definitely make you grateful for your life.

References and Footnotes

  1. Thanks to COVID-19 I didn't physically go to a bookstore. I bought it online and downloaded an e-copy despite my love for physical books.
  2. "North Korean Famine". Wikipedia; visited May 10, 2020

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