From Hyesan to London: Hyeonseo Lee and the New North Korea Defector Memoir

Hyeonseo Lee has produced an excellent memoir, a text which, along with John Sweeney and Emma Graham-Harrison, I will be discussing with her at an event organized by The Guardian in London tomorrow night.

Having worked my way through a review copy of the text this past week, I am happy to convey that the book goes beyond some of the now-stereotypical gestures of the suddenly expanding ‘North Korean defector genre’. Through the book, readers are given a strong sense of the pull of the North even for those who have escaped it — for instance, well after establishing themselves in South Korea as new settlers, both Hyeonseo and her brother end up in Changbai, gazing back in to their hometown of Hyesan. The pervasiveness of bribery in North Korea is made absolutely clear through Hyeonseo’s discussion of her mother’s work as a cross-border trader for whom methamphetamines are as innocuous as T-shirts; in other words, there is money to be made in their transshipment over the waters of the upper Yalu River, so no shame in their handling.

Most of all, Hyeonseo’s long years in China and the people she meets there give a very good sense of both the perils and the half-comforts of edging toward a Korean-Chinese identity outside of Yanbian. The existence of the ‘Korean minority’ in China gives Hyeonseo no absolute safety, but a kind of cultural shield or identity into which (or under which) she can occasionally retreat.

The narrative style is tasteful and effective — throughout, one gets the sense of a seasoned older woman looking back at her own mistakes and bravery. Most of all, the text does not make the common error of trying to bludgeon the reader into submission with pedantic observations about the horrors of life in the DPRK. Instead, North Korea’s flaws — as a society first, and as a state secondarily — come through organically, and are thus more complex and powerful. This is not a story of the gulags, nor is it a dubiously alluring ‘insider account’ of the Kim family court. In criss-crossing the Yalu River and living in Changbai, Shenyang, and Shanghai, the book reveals the web of communications and emotional connectivities between North Koreans living illegally on the Chinese side of the border, as well as the agonies experienced when that communication is broken. I would encourage readers of this blog to pick up the book and read it for themselves.

Image: Via Abuluowang, ‘The North Korean defector who saw an execution at age 7,‘ 23 June 2015. 


  1. Good for Heonseo Lee – but I’m surprised and disappointed, Adam, at your blanket dismissal of what you call ‘dubiously alluring ‘insider accounts’ ” and your failure to identify the writers to whom you refer. If you’re going to make this kind of allegation and characterisation, you should have the intellectual integrity, courage and decency to name names, if only to avoid tarring everyone with the same brush.

    ‘dubiously alluring’ is a excellent example of the sort of snide remark too frequent among those outsiders who claim insight and expertise. Putting ‘insider account’ in ironic inverted commas is another. It casts doubt on and undermines the accounts of all refugees, sneers at the trauma they have suffered and accuses them of manipulating their narratives for questionable (but rarely specified) purposes. This kind of Orientalist smear is shameful and a disservice to serious commentary on North Korea.

    As for the ‘common error … of pedantic observations about the horrors of life in the DPRK’ – again, to whom are you referring? And how are such observations ‘pedantic’? I’m agog. Are you saying that life isn’t so bad in the DPRK? Since again you fail to name names, I wonder if you’re referring to the COI as well as every other account of suffering in North Korea. Surely not.

    1. [ Newstapa Korea secured a testimony from many North Korean defectors that the members and their families of ‘North Korea (NK) Intellectuals Solidarity’ had received money for having written online postings in Agora forums at Daum, an internet portal, for a whole year from the end of 2009 to the end of 2010, ‘NK Intellectuals Solidarity’ is an organization that was established in 2008 with North Korean defectors who had North Korean college education of at least three years. ]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s