The Girl with Seven Names

The Girl with Seven Names

by

Hyeonseo Lee

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The Girl with Seven Names Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Hyeonseo Lee's The Girl with Seven Names. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee was born in January of 1980 in Hyesan, North Korea. Her father was a member of the North Korean military, and her mother worked a government job, as many North Korean citizens do. Lee’s family was not poor, and her mother ran a lucrative side business importing illegal foreign goods across the Yalu River from Changbai, China. Lee attended school in Hyesan and learned to play the accordion, a popular instrument in North Korea since the Cold War. In her early teens, Lee’s father quit the military and took a civilian job, which mandated he travel to China frequently. He was detained on a return trip to North Korea and sent to a prison camp, where he remained until he was finally released weeks later. Lee’s father suffered from depression and was hospitalized, where he later committed suicide by an overdose of Valium. Despite the widespread famine that struck North Korea during the 1990s, Lee’s family managed to still thrive; however, Lee watched her country slowly starve around her. In 1997, just months before she turned 18, Lee escaped across the Yalu River into China and met up with her father’s cousin, who defected during the Korean War. Lee spent over 10 years living under different aliases in China, until she finally sought political asylum in South Korea. Soon after, Lee arranged for her mother and brother to join her in South Korea, although it took them nearly a year to make the journey after being imprisoned in Phonthong Prison in Vientiane, Laos. Lee later became an activist, advocating for the human rights of those still stuck in North Korea, and to date she has given several speeches, including a TED talk in 2013 and a speech on the floor of the United Nations in New York City the same year. She is a graduate of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea, and wrote her book, The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea, in 2015. Lee married Brian Gleason, an American from Wisconsin, whom she met through PSCORE (People for Successful Corean Reunification) in South Korea, and is currently working on her second book about North Korean women living in South Korea.  
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Historical Context of The Girl with Seven Names

In The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee is shocked to learn after she defects from North Korea that the Korean War (known in North Korea as the Fatherland Liberation War) was not started by South Korea, as is traditionally taught in North Korean schools. In 1948, after the Cold War, the Korean Peninsula was divided by the Soviet Union and the United States into two sovereign states. North Korea was made a communist state under Kim Il-sung, and South Korea was made an anti-communist state under Syngman Rhee. Both the North and the South claimed to be the only legitimate government of Korea, and tensions erupted into war when the Korean People’s Army of North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, and advanced into Seoul, the capital of South Korea. 21 countries of the United Nations responded on behalf of South Korea, but the United States provided 90 percent of the required troops. On September 15, 1950, a counter-offensive was launched by the United Nations led by General Douglas MacArthur of the United States Navy. 75,000 troops and 261 naval vessels were dispatched to recapture Seoul and secure the city of Incheon. The counter-offensive was a victory for the United Nations, and American soldiers captured over 135,000 North Korean soldiers, greatly reducing the Korean People’s Army. The war continued, however, and over the next two years, Seoul was captured by the North Koreans and taken back again by the United Nations four times. The war became a war of attrition—meaning each side tried to exhaust the other through repeated battles and the loss of soldiers and supplies—but the United Nations was largely successful in the air. The United States launched a massive bombing campaign against the North Koreans, and for the first time in history, jet fighters and air-to-air combat was used. The fighting stopped on July 27, 1953, with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, but a formal peace treaty was never signed. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war today, locked in a frozen conflict. The war resulted in over 3 million fatalities, and based on the population, saw more civilian deaths than World War II or Vietnam. North Korea remains one of the most heavily-bombed countries in all of military history.     

Other Books Related to The Girl with Seven Names

Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea is a memoir that traces Lee’s escape from North Korea and her eventual arrival in South Korea years later as a political refugee. Other memoirs by North Korean defectors include Hyok Kang’s This is Paradise! and In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park, which follows Park’s own journey from Hyesan, North Korea to China, where she was subsequently abducted by human traffickers. Park finally escaped to Mongolia in 2009 and safely arrived in South Korea. Eyes of Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman follows the experiences of Lee Soon-ok—a senior member of the Korean Worker’s Party from North Hamgyong, North Korea—who was arrested by North Korean police on false charges in the 1980s and sentenced to 13 years in a prison camp. She was released after five years of torture and defected to China in 1992. Throughout history, political refugees have escaped from many other countries around the world, and have recorded their experiences in stories and memoirs including First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung, We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls around the World by Malala Yousafzai, and The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley.
Key Facts about The Girl with Seven Names
  • Full Title: The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea
  • When Written: 2015
  • Where Written: Seoul, South Korea
  • When Published: 2015
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: North Korea, China, South Korea, and Laos
  • Climax: Hyeonseo’s mother and brother, Min-ho, finally make it to South Korea after defecting from North Korea.
  • Antagonist: The oppressive North Korean regime
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Girl with Seven Names

Giving Back. Hyeonseo Lee is currently working to develop an organization that helps connect promising North Korean refugees with an international community.

Busy Lee. In addition to her published memoir, Hyeonseo Lee has written articles for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real-Time section, and the London School of Economics Big Ideas blog.