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How a defector from North Korea realized almost everything she learned about her country was a lie

Hyeonseo Lee, a defector from North Korea and author of The Girl With Seven Names.

“It is ridiculous, the hairstyle he has, everything,” says Hyeonseo Lee.

She is talking about Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea and in her old life, before her defection from the tightly controlled regime, saying such a thing would condemn her and her family to prison or to death.

“I could kill three generations of my family,” she says.

Lee defected at 17, embarking on a perilous journey. Now 34, she has finally written her account of life and escape from the Hermit Kingdom in a new book, The Girl With Seven Names.

It is ridiculous, the hairstyle he has, everything

The woman was raised in a relatively privileged manner, a middle-class existence because of her stepfather’s job with the North Korean military, but even so she attended her first public execution at the age of seven — a stark lesson in obedience.

Seeing a man hanged under a railway bridge — one of many such public executions that are mandatory for people to see, she says — was only one of the grotesque means of control the regime waged against its citizens.

As in many authoritarian countries, for example, Lee’s family displayed portraits of the ruling family in their home, first Great Leader Kim Il-sung, then his son and heir Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and, later, his son and heir Kim Jong-un. The government gave them a special cloth for cleaning the portraits and nothing else. The pictures had to be the most prominent in any room, hung the highest, perfectly aligned and on a wall containing no other adornment.

Once a month, Lee says, officials wearing white gloves would visit every house in her neighbourhood to inspect the portraits. If one was dusty or improperly hung, the family would be punished. It was with the portraits, one under each arm, that her stepfather emerged — blackened and coughing — after running back into their burning house, risking his life for their preservation.

“It was genuine (respect) and fear mixed together,” says Lee.

“They had to show they were loyal to the regime in order to survive.”

But people also knew no other life, had no access to information beyond what they were told by the state and dissent was absent from any discourse.


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