Society

The Ruthless Truth About North Korea

In December 1943, the Cairo Declaration guaranteed Korea’s independence, and this was reaffirmed in the Potsdam Declaration in July 1945. However, it was conditional that independence was achieved “at the right time.” Under such circumstances, the Korean peninsula was the ruled region and was bordered by the 38th line. In a divided state, the three foreign ministers of the US, the British, and the Soviet Union met in Moscow and agreed to implement trusteeship on the Korean Peninsula for five years. In response to this, the Korean people engaged in a fierce antitrust movement, but political turmoil occurred as the leftist forces returned to prosperity after receiving the Soviet order.

In September 1947, the US broke down with the Soviet Union. It unilaterally raised the issue of Korea to the United Nations, rejecting the opposition. As a result, the two Koreas, bordering the 38th parallel, were exposed to the international arena, even experiencing ideological conflicts amid the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. At the UN General Assembly held in November 1947, the United Nations Provisional Korean Committee was formed and under the committee’s supervision. It was decided to hold a general election between the two Koreas; however, the Soviet military commander, who occupied North Korea, refused to enter North Korea by the commission that began its activities in early 1948. Accordingly, the UN Rifle Assembly resolved to vote in areas where elections could be monitored, and elections were held only in South Korea in May of that year, and the Korean government was established in August. In December of that year, the 3rd United Nations General Assembly approved Korea as the legitimate government where general elections were held.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, the “Supreme People’s Assembly” election was held with Kim Il-sung as the center. Thus, on the Korean peninsula, the two Koreas established separate regimes to formalize the division. After the establishment of the government, North Korea immediately demanded the withdrawal of both small troops. In response to the communist movement, South Korea requested US troops’ continued presence in Korea. In the early morning of June 25, 950, the North Korean Communist Forces began a full invasion of the South across the 38th line. Upon hearing the news of the outbreak of war, the United States called the UN Security Council urgently on the 25th to declare that an armed attack by North Korea is an act of aggression that destroys peace.

The Korean War brought an indescribable disaster to the entire Korean people. The disaster was enormous in terms of both humans, physical and mental. Moreover, the war gave rise to a “national movement.” During the Korean War alone, about 290,000 people fled North Korea or were abducted, and it is estimated that about 450,000 to 650,000 people fled to South Korea. This massive population shift brought many changes in South Korean society as well as in North Korea. This population movement affected the increase in the urban population during this period. The cities that proliferated during this period were Seoul, Incheon, Daejeon, and Gwangju. 

“The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story” is the real-life experience of Hyeonseo Lee, a woman from North Korea who was born near the Chinese border in Hyesan.  The Kim regime’s cruelty paints an entirely different life image in North Korea, continuously oppressing North Koreans. The extended Hyeonseo family is spread worldwide, but they cannot visit each other as much as they want.  Most people never get to leave their hometowns, and they must first receive a travel permit from the government before going anywhere, which identifies their destination and is valid for only four days. Hyeonseo is lucky enough to escape North Korea’s persecution and brutality, and she devotes her life to fighting for the human rights of dictatorship-affected North Koreans and others around the world. “You first have to know that you have them, and what they are, to know that your rights are being violated,” Hyeonseo says. In comparison to the violations inflicted on North Koreans in hopes of stripping some of the Kim regime’s control and holding over the people of the region, Hyeonseo explicitly describes these privileges through her memoirs.

Hyeonseo has a deeply ingrained desire to feel as if she is part of a country, and this is made difficult by her position as a North Korean defector in exile. If she is severely punished and likes to be executed for being disloyal to the North Korean government, Hyeonseo will never return to North Korea, but this does not prevent her from longing to return to the happiness she knew as a child. Hyeonseo spent most of her life not understanding that North Korea is a “byword for evil”(xiii)  in most parts of the world and reflects the strength of the North Korean government and the lengths it goes to indoctrinate its people.

Propaganda is a large problem that people have heard about, especially in the North Korean educational system. Hyeonseo talks about how in her geography lesson, they “used a textbook that showed photographs of parched plots of land, so arid that the mud was cracked. ‘This is a normal farm in South Korea,’ the teacher said. ‘Farmers there can’t grow rice. That’s why the people suffer.’” and some examples in her math homework would be “ worded emotively. ‘In one battle of the Great Fatherland Liberation War, 3 brave uncles of the Korean People’s Army wiped out 30 American imperialist bastards. What was the ratio of the soldiers who fought?’”(50) Here, Hyeonseo exposes the normalized propaganda shown in North Korean schools and reveals the moral indoctrination of the North Korean people and the power the Kim regime has over them. This type of indoctrination is brainwashing because farmland in South Korea is not arid and the farmers there are more than capable of growing rice. However, these lies help the regime make the North Korean people think that they are superior to the South Koreans. She also goes into the miserable culture in North Korea by explaining how, “kindness toward strangers is rare in North Korea,” because “there is risk in helping others,” which is ironic because the government is forcing them “to be good citizens,” yet “kind people who put others before themselves would be the first to die” and “it was the ruthless and the selfish who would survive”(38).  In North Korea, there is a risk of helping others because it is easy to offend the regime, which sometimes results in losing one’s life. Additionally, kindness is rare because of the ubiquitous suffering of the North Korean people; everyone is so focused on their own wellbeing that they do not have attention to spare for others. Life in North Korea is difficult because there is a widespread “every person for themselves” mentality. Hyeonseo talks about how “no one was ever told their precise ranking in the songbun system,” yet she thinks, “most people knew by intuition,” and further notes that, “the insidious beauty of it was that it was very easy to sink, but almost impossible to rise in the system, even through marriage, except by some special indulgence of the Great Leader himself”(6). This is significant because it explains songbun, the North Korean caste system. The songbun system is a key method of the oppression of the North Korean people during the Kim regime. The “insidious beauty” of the system ensures that most of the North Korean people are held under low status for their whole lives, without any hope to rise. The fact that songbun runs in families further stresses the importance of family in this memoir, and in North Korean culture and society. 

Hyeonseo also emphasizes her strong opinion on the cruel but limited power of dictatorship. She talks about how “dictatorships may seem strong and unified, but they are always weaker than they appear,” because “they are governed by the whim of one man, who can’t draw upon a wealth of discussion and debate, as democracies can, because he rules through terror and the only truth permitted is his own” and expresses how she does not think “Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship is so weak that it will collapse any time soon” for “ a regime that’s willing to kill as many people as it takes to stay in power tends to stay in power for a very long time”(290). Hyeonseo underscores the power of the North Korean regime to oppress the people; but it also implies that this power is limited, as Hyeonseo claims all dictatorships are, because they rule through chaos and fear. Hyeonseo also implies that such corruption and fear cannot last in the long run. The power of the North Korean regime, like the power of the former Soviet Union, is ingrained in the regime’s disregard for basic human rights. 

The way Hyeonseo wrote this memoir in a way that she exposes the degrading society and supports it with her own experiences helps the reader reflect upon the mistreatment and brainwashing of the North Korean people that are most likely hopeless for a better future. It also brings light to the propaganda and flawed educational system, accentuating the cruel dictatorship regime. Reviews on Goodreads support my opinion on this novel. Sungeun Jin states how “Hyeonseo offers in this book is quite different from other N.Korean defector’s stories. She’s from a family with high class, had a relatively comfortable life to North Korean standards, and did not leave her country and family with the intention of never going back and in search for freedom. It is the realities of the ruthless, harsh regime that twists her path back to her country and she is thrown into a new universe where she had to make her own way.” This review has to be one of my favorites because it is worded perfectly. It emphasizes how Hyeonseo did not live in a relatively low-class household and had the opportunity to start fresh in South Korea, but accentuates the importance of family and the meaning of “home” by going back to save her family. Hyeonseo’s main purpose of escaping North Korea is to bring awareness of the continuous silent suffering of the North Korean people and even said in an interview with the International Bar Association that, “The world is very aware of North Korea’s rapidly developing missile and nuclear capabilities, but not many people know about the struggles of the North Korean people. It seems like they are forgotten and not many people actually care.” Her style of writing in this memoir is very straightforward, as she only interrupts the facts with her feelings in appropriate times. Aside from that, the way she wrote this book is a wake up call for the reader to realize that North Korea is not just a country that is known for their nuclear weapons, but also a ruthless dictatorship that contains innocent people that are being brainwashed and mistreated. This style of writing is effective because she tries to stick with the facts of growing up in North Korea and stray away from sounding biased or unreliable.

Via frequent name changes, which are crucial to save her life and keep her North Korean identity secret from the Chinese government, Hyeonseo ‘s identity changes many times in the novel. The assumed identity of Hyeonseo is continuously checked, and she also mourns the loss of her true North Korean identity. Her interactions show that one can never escape who they really are. While living in Shenyang, Hyeonseo was detained and interrogated as a suspected North Korean by the Chinese police. The fact that the “cover” of Hyeonseo would possibly never come off reflects the long-term suffering and permanent effects of living under such constant and extreme oppression.  Hyeonseo learned not to let people in and not to let them know her true identity long ago, and she can’t just let this guard down just because she defected and gained citizenship and independence from South Korea.

Hyeonseo Lee’s “The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story” is an outstanding insight into life under one of the most brutal and secret dictatorships in the world and the tale of the terrifying struggle of one woman to prevent capture/repatriation and lead her family to freedom. Hyeonseo Lee was one of the millions imprisoned by a hidden and oppressive totalitarian dictatorship as a child growing up in North Korea. This book is the unique tale of Hyeonseo’s escape from the dark into the light, and of her coming of age, education, and the determination she discovered to restore her life, first in China, then in South Korea, not once, but twice. This memoir, robust, courageous, and eloquent, is a triumph of her remarkable spirit and underscores the struggle for survival and how it has been normalized and silenced for decades. 

Works Cited

Ellis, Mark. “A Conversation with Hyeonseo Lee.” International Bar Association, 11 Dec. 2019, www.ibanet.org/Article/NewDetail.aspx?Articleid=72D9AC2C-3CE5-4D84-9851-8F9F762D5514.

LitCharts. “The Girl with Seven Names Study Guide.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/lit/the-girl-with-seven-names

“The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee.” Edited by Seungeun Jin, Goodreads, Goodreads, 2 July 2015, www.goodreads.com/book/show/25362017-the-girl-with-seven-names

“The Girl With Seven Names.” King County Library System, 2015, kcls.bibliocommons.com/item/show/1508456082_the_girl_with_seven_names

“The Korean War.” Encyclopedia of Korean National Culture, encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Item/E0042143

Categories: Society