Extracts from “The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story” by Hyeonseo Lee:
I set my phone to silent, dressed myself entirely in black and walked calmly and purposefully through the hotel lobby in Changbai. Outside I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take me to the point where the town ended, about 200 yards from the river. I crouched down behind an old garden wall and waited. The place was cold and damp and smelled of molding leaves and animal droppings. I peeped over the wall and saw North Korean border patrols passing on the opposite bank of the river.
[My brother] Min-ho had told me he would lead our mother waist-high through the water and help her up one of the ladders on the Chinese bank. The water must be freezing.
After over an hour’s wait, my phone was buzzing. Min-ho’s voice was fast and tense: “We’ve had a problem.” Quickly Min-ho explained that just as he and my mother had been about to cross they had walked straight into a border guard. Luckily he was someone Min-ho did business with.
Min-ho said he and my mother would try again to cross just before dawn. I returned to the hotel and tried to doze for a while in my clothes. I must have drifted off, because the next thing I knew the phone was buzzing next to my face. “We’ll be there at six,” Min-ho said. I jumped off the bed. Minutes later, as I was in the taxi, he called again. “We’re across. We’re hiding in the derelict house.”
I was elated. I had not seen my dear mother in 11 years, nine months and nine days. Now I was minutes away from her. … In the half-light I saw a strained, old face and a body moving very stiffly. Min-ho was behind her, protective and guiding with his arm around her. I ran to meet them, but there was no time for a reunion. “We have to go,” I said.
I pulled out the clothes I had brought for them to help them blend in on the Chinese side. “Put these on. Over what you’re wearing. Quick.” Once they were dressed I led them towards the taxi. “Act normal, but don’t speak. He’ll think you’re locals.”
My heart went into overdrive. I didn’t remember there being so many guards. They were just 50 yards away from me
We sat in silence for the 10-minute ride. [Once inside my hotel room] for a moment we looked at each other. Half a lifetime had passed since the three of us had been together. No one could speak. Then my mother broke down, weeping uncontrollably. Over her shoulder, Min-ho’s face looked immensely sad. He’d shared her pain all these years. And soon he would say goodbye to her and probably never see her again. Read more