Characters, Themes, and Quotes

Main Characters
Additional Characters
Central Themes


  • Hyeonseo Lee - A young girl born in North Korea to a middle/upper class family involving herself and her two parents. We experience the novel through her perspective. Initially, she is easy to believe North Korea is the best country in the world. However, as a teenager, she begins to witness the brutality of her country and its public executions, leading her to question its greatness.


  • Hyeonseo's Brother (Min-ho) – Hyeonseo's younger brother is treated with disdain from Hyeonseo due to his better treatment by the extended family. Hyeonseo eventually comes to realize that this is due to him being the legitimate son of his parents, while Hyeonseo herself is the child of her mother and her mother's first husband who got a divorce. Initially hostile towards her brother, she later confronts her own feelings of resentment for him.


  • Hyeonseo's Father – Hyeonseo was raised believing her father was her true father, before being told by an extended family member that he simply adopted her as a child. He was in love with Hyeonseo's mother from when they were young, but his family believed him too good for her lower status. He is holding secrets against the North Korean government, though he has a job that keeps his family more comfortable than others.


  • Hyeonseo's Mother– In love with one man during her youth after they met on a train, she is forced by her family to marry a wealthier man who she has Hyeonseo with but later divorces for true love. She keeps Hyeonseo from questioning the North Korean government for her own safety. She is a good bargainer, and able to make illegal deals for better goods with Chinese merchants.


  • Identity – Hyeonseo must confront identity throughout her journey. Though initially proud of her North Korean status, she eventually must flee to China, journeying through several countries and fake identities as she makes the trip to South Korea. Though safer and better off in these foreign countries compared to North Korea, she feels a sense of disconnect from the people and nearly longs to return to her home and family, knowing full well the dangerous and perhaps deadly consequences of doing so. Hyeonseo's identity issues are present before she even leaves the country, when she learns she is not her father's biological child, causing her to feel unloved by her extended family and resentful towards her true born brother.
  • Repression/Individualism – Critical thinking does not exist in North Korea, nor does a sense of individual identity. The family, when dealing with a house fire, runs back into the burning house to grab photos of the country's leaders without question. Everyone is conditioned to see these leaders as God, and to love them more than their own family or any other interest. Conformity is celebrated, while individual interests and materialism are seen as Western diseases that must be eradicated.



Hyeonseo Lee:


 “Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey. ” (Introduction, Page xii)



Hyeonseo Lee:


“I hope you remember that if you encounter an obstacle on the road, don’t think of it as an obstacle at all… think of it as a challenge to find a new path on the road less traveled.” 



Hyeonseo Lee:


“Kind people who put others before themselves would be the first to die. It was the ruthless and the selfish who would survive.” 



Hyeonseo Lee:


“One of the tragedies of North Korea is that everyone wears a mask, which they let slip at their peril.” 



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