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Meet an Author: Hyeonseo Lee, North Korea defector

Hyeonseo Lee sitting

Hyeonseo Lee is a North Korean defector living in Seoul. Her memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, has been published in more than 20 countries “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,” Lee writes. Over 5 million people have viewed her TED Talk about her life in North Korea, her escape to China, and struggle to bring her family to freedom. Lee has given testimony about North Korean human rights in front of a special panel of the UN Security Council, and has discussed issues with important leaders such as UN Ambassador Samantha Powers.

Hyeonseo Lee’s solo book talk, scheduled for Saturday, was so popular that we had to give her a second solo book talk the next day.

Book available at The Bookworm:

The Girl with Seven Names (2015)

Events at The Bookworm Beijing:

Saturday, March 26, 6 pm: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, moderated by Calum MacLeod

Sunday, March 27, 2 pm: Writing Life: The Art of Memoir, with Sergio Del Molino, moderated by Zhiling Gao

Sunday, March 27, 6 pmThe Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story [ENCORE], moderated by Calum MacLeod

Hyeonseo Lee The Girl with Seven Names

Opening of The Girl with Seven Names:

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.

Review by Laurie O’Donnell:

The Girl With Seven Names is the incredible story of Hyeonseo Lee, who at seventeen made the decision to leave North Korea, one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.

Her heroism, however, came from her courage to return to bring her mother and brother out to the freedom she found.

When Lee crossed over into China, she had to face the reality and the consequences of being never able to return. She learned Chinese and, at the risk of extradition, managed to adapt and survive.

The Girl With Seven Names describes her perilous journey to avoid capture and repatriation. This is a living account of a young woman who has the strength to navigate life-threatening challenges. She survives. The narrative is straightforward and honest.

Hyeonseo shows us everyday life in North Korea. A society described as classless includes people who are marked as “loyal, wavering or hostile.” Class determines marriage, employment, and where you can live. This is a place where primary school involves “life purification time,” code for training to accuse others and force confessions.

Hyeonseo eventually reaches South Korea, where North Korean citizens are automatically granted citizenship. She lives in Seoul, and as most North Koreans, is treated with suspicion, contempt, and resentment. Freedom is illusory; even after leaving one of the most oppressive states, she experiences the limits to her freedom in the minds and hearts of the liberated.

Twelve years and a lifetime of experiences later, Hyeonseo returned to the North Korean border to bring her mother and brother into the life she had. It is frightening, costly, and dangerous. She is not an expert on justice; she is a human battle in the war for it.

Hyeonseo Lee is an author participating at the 2016 Bookworm Literary Festival. To read about other participating authors, please see our Meet an Author series.

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