Last chance for Korean Americans hoping to find lost family members

It has been more than 70 years since Kyung Joo Lee fled North Korea, leaving behind three older brothers and an older...

Posted: Jun 12, 2018 11:06 AM
Updated: Jun 12, 2018 11:06 AM

It has been more than 70 years since Kyung Joo Lee fled North Korea, leaving behind three older brothers and an older sister.

Lee has spent every day since praying that his four siblings managed to remain safe and survive the hardships that have come to define his former country.

Now, almost seven decades later and with the United States and North Korea on the verge of a potential diplomatic breakthrough, 90-year-old Lee is hopeful that he might at last find out what happened to his family.

For Korean Americans like Lee, Tuesday's summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un represents the possibility, however unlikely, that the two countries may allow families on either side of the conflict to be reunited.

But time is running out.

Family Reunions

In 2001, the US congress estimated there were 100,000 people living in the United States who were divided from their relatives in North Korea. That number likely to be significantly lower now, with many of the more elderly members of that group having since passed away.

For that reason, this moment of political negotiation may also be their last chance for resolution, as many of these Korean Americans may not live long enough to see the results of future diplomatic attempts.

While North and South Korea have facilitated more than a dozen opportunities for family reunions in the past, there is no official channel to connect Korean Americans with their relatives in North Korea.

In 2015, Congress passed a resolution that "encourages North Korea to allow Korean Americans to meet with their family members from North Korea, and calls on North Korea to take concrete steps to build goodwill conducive to peace on the Korean Peninsula."

How Lee Joo Lee escaped

Through a translator, Lee said he joined student movements protesting the Communists when he was 16. He recalled one protest in 1946, when Communist troops used weapons against the students.

"It was still cold and the snow had not melted yet, when the student demonstration happened. And the officers -- what we would call the police nowadays -- the officers approached the demonstrating students on a truck and fired at them," Lee said, through a translator.

"We kept on marching, carrying the bloody, dead bodies of fellow students in carts. But the opposition was so strong against us that we eventually had to disperse."

He said student protestors were being identified and arrested, so he knew he had to leave home. Adding to the anxiety, his family was Christian, in an environment where Communists did not allow religion.

Lee said his family was the target of surveillance. His older brothers and sister, who were already finished with school, did not take the risk of participating in protests.

Lee ended up hiding in homes of fellow church members, before deciding to go home one last time to say goodbye to his mother.

"When I look back on it now, all my mother could do was cry. All I remember is that we both shed tears," he said.

Lee said only two of his brothers were home when he left. He did not get to say goodbye to the others. In his heart, he thought he would be coming home someday. He thought Communism would fail.

"What's funny is that, while the government was trying to catch me, the person who helped me out was one of the higher-up officials. He was a friend of my brother's, so he protected me and guided me up to the 38th parallel," Lee said, referencing the line of latitude that acts as a rough line of demarcation between North Korea and South Korea.

From there, Lee crossed into South Korea. While his mother eventually escaped and lived the rest of her years with him, they never heard from his four other siblings again.

Life After North Korea

Lee said life in South Korea was tough at first. He was alone. He delivered newspapers and eventually sold fruits on the street to make money.

He later served with the South Korean army and fought against North Korea forces when war broke out in 1950.

After hostilities ceased in 1953, he reentered into civilian life and taught grade school.

Lee got married and had three daughters, one of whom married an American citizen. She was able to later petition for the rest of her family to move to the US.

Lee moved to Annandale, Virginia in the 1990s and became a naturalized US citizen. At his senior home, he teaches poetry to his fellow residents once a month and has a published book of poems.

As for his siblings, Lee said they have probably passed away by now. As Christians, they might have gone into hiding.

"Also, it is historically documented that when the South Korean troops marched into Hamhung, they found three big wells inside the prison where many Right-leaning people were drowned alive with their hands tied," he said.

He fears that finding out the status of his siblings might lead to grisly discoveries like that.

"In a way, it's more comforting for me to not know and long for them, rather than receiving bad news and being in pain for them," Lee said.

But he still wants to know.

Lee said he is skeptical of any purported success to come from the US-North Korea summit. Still, he holds hope that this may be a first step in opening a dialogue for Korean Americans to find answers.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 147582

Reported Deaths: 3937
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion24410780
Lake12911350
St. Joseph8651154
Elkhart8281130
Allen7756221
Hamilton5872113
Vanderburgh547750
Tippecanoe346414
Monroe316238
Hendricks3116130
Johnson2947127
Porter288948
Clark280857
Delaware277174
Vigo245534
Madison224587
Cass220120
LaPorte208853
Warrick185362
Floyd170865
Kosciusko169221
Howard155366
Bartholomew137557
Dubois133423
Marshall129826
Henry120728
Boone117748
Grant116839
Wayne114923
Hancock112844
Noble110033
Jackson106412
Morgan90840
Dearborn89528
Daviess82732
Gibson8229
Clinton80116
Shelby76929
Lawrence76732
LaGrange76114
Harrison72924
Putnam69415
Knox68610
DeKalb67411
Posey6695
Steuben5798
Miami5655
Montgomery55722
Fayette55615
White55615
Jasper5264
Greene50537
Scott50313
Decatur49339
Adams4555
Clay4266
Whitley4246
Ripley4138
Sullivan40612
Wells4045
Orange38124
Starke3787
Wabash3769
Spencer3656
Huntington3645
Franklin35925
Jennings35813
Washington3452
Randolph3318
Jefferson3275
Fulton3232
Pike31512
Carroll30513
Perry28214
Jay2756
Fountain2733
Tipton26123
Parke2152
Newton20511
Vermillion2031
Owen1991
Rush1984
Martin1930
Blackford1843
Crawford1401
Pulaski1401
Brown1283
Ohio1167
Benton1060
Union1010
Switzerland840
Warren721
Unassigned0233

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 181787

Reported Deaths: 5067
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin30590635
Cuyahoga19212671
Hamilton15890338
Montgomery9883184
Lucas8058370
Butler7856122
Summit6406260
Warren393360
Stark3605178
Mahoning3567283
Marion332149
Pickaway294646
Delaware275927
Lorain262389
Fairfield254156
Licking241065
Wood240181
Clark231654
Clermont225936
Trumbull2174134
Greene210840
Columbiana207887
Allen195873
Miami191056
Lake184757
Medina175542
Portage153067
Mercer143327
Ross130533
Wayne125968
Richland125724
Tuscarawas117822
Athens11452
Erie111453
Darke108850
Madison101314
Hancock97520
Auglaize92716
Lawrence88524
Putnam86127
Shelby85014
Geauga81950
Muskingum8174
Scioto7709
Belmont76827
Union7203
Ashtabula71348
Huron6909
Sandusky69022
Seneca57614
Preble57417
Ottawa55930
Holmes53710
Fulton4726
Henry44217
Jefferson4384
Defiance43713
Clinton42013
Jackson4197
Fayette4188
Crawford4088
Logan3923
Champaign3783
Highland3714
Ashland3705
Brown3583
Knox35215
Perry35011
Washington32423
Morrow3222
Williams3124
Hardin30913
Coshocton28612
Pike2780
Wyandot27813
Gallia27413
Guernsey2688
Van Wert2153
Meigs20512
Adams1936
Hocking1899
Carroll1887
Paulding1791
Monroe14118
Noble1120
Vinton853
Harrison763
Morgan690
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 46°
Angola
Overcast
45° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 41°
Huntington
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 46°
Decatur
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 44°
Van Wert
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 44°
Cloudy Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events