Hyeonseo Lee escaped from North Korea by herself when she was just 17 and was cut of from her family for many years as she was forced to survive in China, a country that could deport her back to North Korea at any time, where she would be killed for her escape.
Spoiler Free Review:
Content Warnings: generally dark topics, death/murder, mentions of cannibalism, starvation, deceptions of corpses, threat of sexual assault/human trafficking
This was not the first and probably not the last book that I’ve read about North Korea, so nothing in this memoir about North Korea itself really surprised me. I found this book particularly interesting because Hyeonseo’s defection was quite different from what I’ve read about before.
Hyeonseo led a somewhat privileged life in North Korea. She still felt the fear and repression from the government, but she didn’t really want for anything growing up. She recounts once, around when country-wide hunger was at it’s highest in the 90’s, that she asked her friend for a snack when she was visiting because she didn’t even realize that food was hard to come by.
In the other books by defectors I’ve read, hunger is one of the biggest factors in their decisions to escape, but for Hyeonseo, she was mostly just curious about China. Her plan was to just visit China for a few days, then come back before anyone had noticed that she was away, but she ended up not being able to return without risking the safety of herself and her family.
She ended up living in China many years before even thinking about going to South Korea, which was also very different. She ended up doing pretty well for herself after awhile in China, so her trip to South Korea wasn’t as hard to plan as others I’ve read about. I’m not saying that her journey was easy by any means, but it definitely doesn’t sound like it’s the norm.
She also recounts her struggle with trying to get her family out of North Korea and into South Korea, both by changing their minds about staying and physically getting them across the border safely. This section was particularly hard to read because they really couldn’t catch a break, even once they’d gotten to South Korea.
I think one important thing that popped up a few times, even among all of the terrible things happening, was that small acts of kindness really can make a difference. There were certain instances where absolute strangers did one small thing (though in some cases, a big thing) that completely changed the course of her life. When reading about such dark circumstances, I get pretty down, so mentions of people like this remind me that the world isn’t completely terrible.
If you don’t know anything about North Korea, I definitely recommend you read about it or even watch Hyeonseo’s TED Talk. I find the topic to be horrifying and a little fascinating, but definitely important to know about.