I came across this book thanks to a subscription to the Shelter Box Book Club. Hyeonseo Lee’s account gives an insight into a country that keeps much of its way of life shut off from the eyes of the world.
Hyeonseo recounts her childhood growing up in a relatively wealthy, well-connected family. Her family lived in a border town and as they move to a new house, they look out onto a river and on the other side, China. Her early life seemed “normal”. She tells of her schooling and of the groups session where students would be encouraged to denounce each other. But while life seems “normal”, there are also some sinister undercurrents. She witnesses her first public execution aged 7 and during the famine that hit North Korea in the 1990s, she sees widespread poverty and hardship.
Living so close to the Chinese border, her mother becomes skilled in trading on the black market, smuggling items in from China and selling them in North Korea. 17-year-old Hyeonseo hears of others crossing the border and slipping back and the temptation to try it, just once before starting college, becomes too much. One night with the help of a friend, she crosses into China without telling her family. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she will never return to North Korea again.
News of her escape begins to spread and it becomes apparent she would be placing her family in danger by returning. What follows is a journey across China as an illegal immigrant, stopping for periods of time to work and live before her past catches up with her and she is forced to move on once again. Eventually she decides to leave this life of hiding behind her and hatches a plan to seek asylum in South Korea, catching a plane to Seoul and announcing her intention to seek asylum.
Having been granted asylum and now settling into life in South Korea, Hyeonseo returns to that same border she once crossed, to smuggle her mother out of the country. Due to an issue as her mother crosses, her brother ends up crossing too and now the journey begins once again, this time to bring her brother and mother to safety.
While this is an incredible story of bravery and determination, I was really interested in the sections where Hyeonseo discusses adapting to life outside North Korea. As the successful asylum seekers are released into South Korean society, they go through a training course on what to expect. Her mum really struggles with her new life, so much so that she considers returning home. While we may wonder at this decision, it is one that according to the book, some people ultimately choose. Hyeonseo explains that for those who suffered immense hardship and suffering, life outside is a relief. But for those who were relatively well-off and knew how to work the system, while life in North Korea wasn’t perfect, life outside can be a struggle. North Korean education is viewed as all but worthless and Hyeonseo’s mum ends up working as a cleaner with little prospect of bettering herself. As someone who commanded respect in her hometown, this is difficult to swallow.
It really is a fascinating read and I learnt a lot through this book about an area of the world I know very little about. If you are interested in hearing more, this YouTube video shows Hyeonseo speaking at the Perth Writers Festival.
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