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Ms. Helie Lee
June 21, 2002
I am honored to be here today. I am especially grateful to
Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Sam Brownback for all of us being here
First, I must tell you that I am not an expert or a scholar or a
journalist. I am an author, a Korean American, an American, who has
written about my family's daring mission to rescue my uncle and eight
members of his family from North Korea in 1997. By sharing my family's
true-life story, it is my deepest hope that the unfamiliar becomes
familiar, that the nameless, faceless North Korean refugees will not seem
so foreign, that you will see they are no different from us. They are
mothers and sons, sisters and brothers, and children, who also deserve
life, liberty and dignity.
During the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, my grandmother's
16 year old son, Yong Woon, was the only one who didn't make it out of
North Korea to the South. The last we heard of him was that he had been
captured by communist troops as he was trying to flee. Dead? Alive? No
When the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 to stall
the bloody war, my grandmother desperately searched for her son. For
years, she wrote letters to American ambassadors, Christian missionaries,
and even to Kim Il Sung in hopes of securing a tourist visa into North
Korea. When she had almost lost hope, a letter arrived from North Korea
in 1991, resurrecting this missing son's ghost. The flimsy envelope was
emblazoned with the emblem of the Workers' Party --the hammer and sickle,
and the pen-- in blood-red ink. Receiving the letter was bittersweet.
Sweet, because finally we knew what had become of Yong Woon. Bitter,
because my grandmother could not rush to him. North Korea was then and
still is the most closed off and repressive regime in the world.
It wasn't until 1997 that our chance to reunite mother and son
appear. A Korean Chinese man called my parents in Los Angeles from
China, collect. This man offered to arrange a secret reunion with Yong
Woon in China. Apparently he had befriended my uncle during one of his
business trips to North Korea. He was a smuggler by trade. He would
smuggle bags of rice, underwear, socks, dried herbs into the North, where
he traded them on the black market for valuable antiques. North Koreans
were so desperate and hungry due to the famine they sold whatever they
Immediately my father and I escorted my 85 year old grandmother
to Northeastern China, to a remote city called Yanji. It was the nearest
airport to the China/North Korea border. The long flight from Los
Angeles to Seoul to Beijing to Yanji was physically too much for my
grandmother. We had to leave her behind in Yanji. My father and I
decided that we would go to the watery border alone. Our plan was to
sneak Yong Woon across the border into China using the smuggler's
contacts, then drive him back to Grandmother. Mother and son could meet
for a few precious hours, then we would sneak him back before the North
Korean police discovered he had escaped. If discovered, he would be
convicted of treason and his entire family, including young children and
the elderly, severely punished. This is how the North Korean system
operated. This is how the system controlled the people.
Our trek to the border town of Changbai City was a backbreaking
journey along an unpaved icy mountainous road. Eleven hours after we
left Yanji, we arrived at the watery border. I was stunned by what I
saw. I had envisioned the Yalu River, the natural division between China
and North Korea, to be miles wide and treacherous. I had imaged barbwire
fencing, floodlights, and guard posts similar to the Demilitarized Zone
that divided the Korean peninsula in half near the 38th parallel. It was
nothing like that. The river was absolutely still and only waist deep in
this area. However, there was a tall stone wall erected on the North
Korean side, just beyond the rocky riverbank. I suspected the wall
wasn't built to keep people from trying to get out; it was there to
prevent us, the outside world, from seeing all the decay and disrepair
just behind it. But the armed soldiers, posted every ten to fifteen
yards along the riverbank, would shoot down anyone who did try to escape.
I was so terrified that I couldn't call out to Yong Woon, my
uncle. He was squatted near the freezing water, washing himself, trying
not to attract attention to himself. Suddenly seeing him spoke volumes
of the harshness of North Korean life and the famine became real. My
uncle was sixty-two, the same age as my father, but he looked as old as
my grandmother. His frame was so bony and his face was gaunt. His eyes
and cheeks were hollowed. He was wearing a faded green Mao jacket with
the high Mandarin collar and a Lenin cap with the red star. His clothes
were much too sheer for the chilly weather and they looked as though they
should have been discarded year ago. But what was worse than the
starvation and lack of warm clothes was the hopelessness: no reason to
live. I wanted so badly to give my uncle my jacket, but the soldiers,
eager to shoot, froze my feet. All I could offer my uncle was a message
from his mother. In order to communicate with him, we had to bribe the
soldiers along the riverbank. A pack of cigarettes, a piece of rice
cake, a bottle of liquor, these were enough to buy us protection to speak
to our relatives, because even the soldiers were hungry.
In my American-accented Korean, I called out, "Grandmother has
never stopped searching for you. She's never forgotten you!"
My uncle never made it across the river that day. The shock of
seeing us and being so frail, he fell unconscious. It was heartbreaking.
We had failed. I had failed to keep my promise to my grandmother that
she would be able to see her son one last time before she passed away.
The guilt consumed my father and me when we returned home. Also,
we were haunted by all that we had witnessed and the people we had left
behind. The memories polluted our privileged lives back in America. We
knew we had to go back. There was no other option for us.
With the assistance of several brave individuals, who acted as
our guides, drivers, and translators, we planned a risky secret mission.
Naively, we thought the mission would take two to four weeks to
coordinate and execute. But so many things went wrong. Our guides had
taken great care in planning out every detail and mile of the mission,
but we had gravely underestimated the power of Kim Il Sung. Half of my
uncle's family was so indoctrinated that they could not bring themselves
to betray their "Great Leader." They clung onto the belief that their
"Great Leader" would somehow provide for them.
Eventually, we got everyone across the watery border and into China. As
unbelievable as this may sound, getting my relatives out of North Korea
was the easiest part of our mission. A mere bribe, equivalent to 400
American dollars, bought nine lives. Getting my relatives out of China
was the difficult and dangerous leg of our mission. North Korean
refugees were not embraced. Embassies regularly turned them away fearful
of upsetting China, their host country, and the unpredictable North
Korean regime. And China, a long time ally of North Korea, had an
agreement to repatriate any and all refugees, many times hunting them
down, knowing they would face harsh punishment, even execution.
For weeks, my relatives nervously hid out in safe houses, always on the
run, always fearful of capture. They were so afraid of being caught and
sent back that they each carried enough rat poison to kill themselves.
They would rather commit suicide than return to North Korea.
Originally we had negotiated a fishing boat to take my relatives from the
port city of Dalian down through the West Sea, across the maritime
border, but North Korea began to aggressively patrol the seas with
high-speed boats. When the fishing boat became too risky, we had to get
them out of China by land and into another more friendly country. But to
where? There weren't that many safe and convenient options. After much
consideration, we decided on the South Korean Consulate in Hanoi,
Vietnam. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Vietnam had
reestablished diplomatic relations with Western nations, even the United
States, and it had prosperous economic ties with South Korea. It was
financially wiser for Vietnam to maintain good relations with Seoul
rather than Pyongyang, which had nothing to offer them.
However, there was still a chance that the consulate would not grant my
relatives asylum. My uncle's family was from the bottom rung of North
Korean society. My uncle was branded as a traitor due to the fact that
his family had converted to Christianity and were land owners before the
Korean War. He didn't have top secret information to barter for their
lives. He wasn't Hwang Jang Yop, a high member of the Central Committee
of the Workers' Party, who had defected that same year.
We needed leverage. Fortunately, we had it. Being a savvy American and
having worked in the entertainment business, I knew the power of the
media. With the help of a small South Korean television crew, we
videotaped everything. It was our intention to use the footage of the
escape to issue a plea to the world to pry government doors open. I
believe it was this video and the American publication of Still Life With
Rice, which told the story of my grandmother's separation from her son,
the year before that won my relatives their freedom.
Seven months later, after many trips to China by my father and myself,
after many bribes, all nine members reached South Korea. Half of them
came out through Vietnam, the other half came out through Mongolia.
Today my relatives are living safely and happily. They are the lucky
few. They had us to guide and support them. We were willing to risk our
own lives to save theirs. But everyday I am filled with guilt
remembering those we could not save. Everyday I am filled with pain when
I read about the many desperate refugees storming foreign embassies in
China in a last ditch effort for life. Those lucky few who receive
international media coverage are the ones who make it to South Korea.
According to the BBC, about 1600 North Korean defectors have made it to
South Korea since 1953. According the KoreAm Journal, the figure is
slightly higher at 1800. These numbers are shamefully low considering
the tens and thousands of refugees that have been reported. America, on
the other hand, has thus far received only two North Korean families
since the Korean War as reported by Newsweek (September 8, 1991).
Ambassador, Jang Sung Gil, a diplomat in the Middle East, and his
brother, a fellow diplomat, and their families were supposedly courted by
What about the regular people, people like my uncle Yong Woon, who are
slowly starving to death? Who will save them?
America, a leader of human rights, a great generous nation, it is time to
step up to the plate. It is what our nation does best. In the sixties,
when China was suffering from a massive famine after Mao instituted the
Great Leap Forward (1952), 250,000 Chinese escaped to Hong Kong. Hong
Kong appealed for international help. Then President John F. Kennedy
enacted an emergency executive order allowing the immediate immigration
of five thousand people from Hong Kong to the United States.
It is not too late.
In memory of my grandmother, Baek, Hong Yong, I thank you.