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Summary

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.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal communist regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom, and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life.

Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed, surely her country could not be, as she had been told "the best on the planet".

Aged 17, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be 12 years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumours of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities - involving imprisonment, torture and possible public execution.

Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. And 12 years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

This is the unique story not only of Hyeonseo's escape from the darkness into the light but also of her coming of age and education and the resolve she found to rebuild her life - not once but twice - first in China then in South Korea. Strong, brave and eloquent, this memoir is a triumph of her remarkable spirit.

©2015 Hyeonseo Lee (P)2015 HarperCollins Publishers Limited

Critic reviews

"The most riveting TED talk ever." (Oprah)
"This is a powerful story of an escapee from North Korea. In the hallowed meeting rooms of the United Nations in New York, ambassadors from North Korea recently sought to shout down stories like this. But these voices will not be silenced. Eventually freedom will be restored. History will vindicate Hyeonseo Lee and those like her for the risks they ran so that their bodies and their minds could be free. And so that we could know the truth." (Michael Kirby, chair of the UN commission on human rights abuses in North Korea)

"When I first met Hyeonseo Lee, the unflinching manner in which she told her story was inspirational. She experienced hunger, coldness, fear, terror, threats and pursuit. All this she had to endure, simply for being a North Korean refugee. But the one thing that she held on to was her humanity, ever stronger as she continuously sublimated her hardships into hope. This is a sad and beautiful story of a girl who could not even keep her name, yet overcome all with the identity of what it is to be human." (Jang Jin-sung, author of Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee - A Look Inside North Korea)

What listeners say about The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story

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Fantastic educational

I’ve learnt so much and feel my compassion has deepened for those seeking asylum x

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Hideous pronunciation of Mandarin!

Such a shame they used an English narrator who couldn't pronounce 'alias' and had a horrible intonation when pronouncing 'Mandarin'. Every time she said it, it made me want to scream. Interesting autobiography but poor narrator was distracting.

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About the performance

I just wanted to give my opinion about the narrator's performance here. I found it very poor and, in many parts, very annoying. It was unpleasant enough to listen to, especially whenever she tries to read the Korean lines, with an incredibly poor accent. I think she should have studied it through, she's just improvising. Also, when she mimics male voices or other voices than the narrator's, it almost sounds like she's mocking them unnecessarily. I am sorry to be saying this, but it was really irritating to listen to her. I only listened all the way through the audiobook because I was interested in the story.

1 person found this helpful

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Great story, gripping & educational

Loved the book. Incredible story. What a woman! So much courage and determination. Wasn't keen on narrators cockney second voices thought that was irritating.

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Amazing

I'll forever be amazed at the strength and courage of Hyeonseo Lee and her family. What a story. I'm saddened we live in a world where someone had to endure such hardship.

I also love the narration by Josie Dunn, what a fantastic job.

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A Great insight

What hits home is that communism has failed globally. In all societies, there are many forms of indoctrination, only recently are we starting to understand the brutal North Korean version, how long will it last? A great listen, I found myself mesmerized until the end and then, returning several times to listen to chapters!

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Fascinating

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which kept me interested and tensed until the end. This is the fascinating story of a brave and resourceful woman.

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One of the best books I have EVER read

Meticulous plot. It is such an interesting and realistic book. I love it. Doesn't get any better than this!!!

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Superb Book

What a revelation this book is. It informs and grips your mind and emotions with every chapter.

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Gripping

What a harrowing, yet fascinating story. It is a must-read if you're interested in the subject of North Korea.

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  • Lucy
  • 13-11-17

The grit it must have taken

Hyeonseo Lee has taken courage to a new level in her amazing story. I so appreciated the look into the hidden society of North Korea. Ms. Lee exposes all facets of life there as she tells her remarkable story with its convoluted struggle for escape. We grow with her as the story progresses from childhood innocence to a calculating, determined young woman taking enormous risks to become free. I would like to thank her for also taking the risk of writing her memoir. It not only inspires, but it reminds us what a long and costly road freedom can be, something we in the US should never take for granted.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 26-06-17

ok but....

I'm not yet finished with the book but wanted to say that I feel the author made one major mistake. That is...having a person with a strong English accent be the narrator of a book about a young girl/woman from North Korea. It simply doesn't make sense and takes away from the authenticity of the story. I would rather have had a person with an Asian accent tell the story because it would have been more natural to the nature of the story. Just my 2 cents.

25 people found this helpful

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  • Daryl
  • 16-07-17

A Love for a Dictatorship?

I was incredulous upon starting this compelling book. How could someone love a country like North Korea, where simply speaking out against the government could be cause for a death sentence?
And yet, it is very clear that Hyeonseo Lee does love her country, for the life she lived there when times were good.
In riveting prose, she describes her life in North Korea as a child, who her parents were, what was good and what was tragic. A trip across the river into China was risky business, but as a teenager she went across to experience the world and has not been able to return to the country of her birth since then - nearly twenty years ago. She describes her actions with the benefit of hindsight, how she could be naive and cruel and otherwise hurtful to those around her. It is clear that she deeply regrets some of her actions, particularly as a teenager toward her father and brother. But in a country like North Korea, second chances are few, and the opportunities to make amends are few and far between. Hyeonseo Lee clearly carries a fighter's spirit, a lot of regret, and yet hope for the country of her birth.
As others have stated, another narrator would have been a better choice. As the author has no connection whatsoever to the UK, having a British narrator was quite jarring. She was good at her performance, but an American or Asian narrator would have been a better choice.
Overall, well worth your time and credit.

17 people found this helpful

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  • Grace
  • 26-09-15

Five stars

Would you listen to The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story again? Why?

I hardly ever give a book 5 stars and this is my first review but this book is unbelievable, I could barely put it down. This book is a page turner and even though you know the outcome, your heart pounds as you read her journey and that of her family. It is sad at times but overall, an empowering story of strength.

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  • SF
  • 18-12-16

Great!

Where does The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

SPOILERS: Since living in South Korea (ROK), I've grown an affinity for books on North Korea (DPRK). This is a decent book on the subject. It doesn't give a lot of detail on life in North Korea during the "difficult times" but the author describes scenes and memories no child should.

Even Lee's escape from North Korea isn't a big deal. She simply tells a border guard she's going across. It was completely unplanned. Her escape from China to Shanghai was also uneventful. Lee just takes a flight. There are others who have much more grueling escapes. However, there is no doubt that it is an absolute challenge to do what she did and there is nothing to take away from that!

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story?

SPOILER: The author describing the man that hit his head after riding under the train and cracking his skull; just unimaginable but so nonchalant for the people at the time.

What three words best describe Josie Dunn’s performance?

Distracting, not researched

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

How far would you go for family?

Any additional comments?

The British accent on Dunn's performance is somewhat distracting as an American listener. It is very strong and nothing that I would expect a North Korean to sound like. It slightly takes away from the story.

The other issue is that the producers must of have done little research into how to pronounce the names in the book. Having lived in Seoul, Shanghai and traveled through Laos, dated a Laotian; it is mind-numbing to listen to half of these simple pronunciations.

I am no stickler for languages, but the names are so simple. The reader even gets the author's name wrong; pronouncing it Yeonseo with a "y" instead of Hyeonseao with an "hy". I mean: that's the author's name, how do you not research how to say that?!

Other names that I can remember that were pronounced incorrectly: Pyongyang, Harbin (city in China), Laos( The country had no "s" sound, although the author pronounced the language as "Lao" instead of Laotian, the normal nomenclature, but mispronounced the country.) Vientiane (The capital of Laos). She did however pronounce Shanghai correctly, perhaps because of her British accent of a short "ah" sound to shang.

All of that really took me out of the story from time to time. The author also mocks male characters, usually "bad" ones that are Korean or Chinese military guards or police. These accents are borderline cockney and just bizarre. She also mocks an American boyfriend of Lee's and that is just awful.

So, in short, at least as an American, the strong British accent just really seems wrong and does take away from the story from time to time.

12 people found this helpful

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  • Alex
  • 23-09-17

Fascinating story, inadequate narration.

What aspect of Josie Dunn’s performance would you have changed?

The Korean pronunciations were wrong and unintelligible. Korean is not a difficult language to pronounce; research should have been done.

Any additional comments?

For titles with significant foreign names or vocab, find a narrator who speaks a bit of the language in question.

16 people found this helpful

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  • Melinda Ecker
  • 17-09-18

Incite and Intrigue In North And South Korea

Such a riveting, well written and wonderfully narrated true tale of life and it’s dangers in North Korea. Such a brave and determined young girl, to escape North Korea and then return for her family! There are not many books that “I can’t quit reading” but this was one, for sure!

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  • Kathryn Galloway
  • 30-06-17

important and entertaining

so moving. and humbling. and hard to believe what someone else, my age, was living and dealing with as I lead my life so freely in another world.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Kaycee
  • 12-05-17

Narrator should have been Korean

The book was very interesting, dramatic, thought-provoking, and inspiring. The only thing that could have been improved would have been to use a narrator with a Korean accent. It was distracting to me to be envisioning Hyeonseo going through all of her experiences, but hearing it through a British accent. The narrator was very good - I would listen to anything else she read.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Daniela Cortes
  • 09-10-15

One of the greatest books I've ever read

The story of people from North Korea is outstanding. It is hard to believe that at this present time there are still countries run by dictators.

2 people found this helpful