April 8, 2002
Calvin To Host Talk on Koreas
There has been an uneasy relationship in recent months between the United States, South Korea and North Korea.
On Tuesday, April 30 Calvin College will host an author with a unique perspective on the situation when Helie Lee speaks on "In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of Her Family."
In her talk, which will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Gezon Auditorium, Lee will tell the story of a dangerous rescue mission to North Korea undertaken by her and her family, a mission which led to one of a handful of successful escapes from North Korea that occur each year.
Helie Lee was born in Seoul and lived there until immigrating with her family to the U.S. at the age of four. In 1996 the Los Angeles resident wrote a bestselling book called "Still Life With Rice," the story of her extended family's journey from Japanese oppression in Korea to escape to China to immigration to the U.S.
She later learned, however, that the book may have placed relatives left in North Korea in danger. Her grandmother had a son, Lee Yong Un (Helie's uncle), who had been left behind in North Korea in the confusion of the wartime flight of civilians from the North to the South. Helie's grandmother made it with four of her children, but not with Lee Yong Un. He was just 16.
"I was left alone in North Korea," he told the Los Angeles Times. "All my family was heading south. At the Daedong River (in Pyongyang) the bridge was destroyed. I was 16. I somehow ended up on the boat alone, with my family still on shore. I went back to Pyongyang in search of my family. No one was there. Since then I was alone for 47 years."
Lee Yong Un's whereabouts remained a mystery and he was given up for dead. His pain, said the Times, was so great that he never told his family about his American relatives. But in 1991, Lee Yong Un was located in the north. And in "Still Life With Rice," Helie Lee included a letter from his daughter, Lee Ae Ran, committing what she realized after publication was a cardinal sin: naming the relatives left behind. When the book was translated into Korean, Helie Lee and her family devised a plan to rescue the relatives and spirit them to freedom. The mission required eight months of government appeals and nerve-racking, dangerous trips through China and near the border of North Korea. Finally, in December 1997, a dramatic reunion took place in South Korea. And Lee's grandmother, Hong Yong Back, got to see the son she hadn't seen in almost 50 years. "God, I thank thee!" shouted Back, who said she had been praying for the moment for decades.
The amazing story is told in Lee's most recent book, due out at the end of this month, "In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of Her Family."
The book describes that daring rescue mission in North Korea, one of the most repressive countries in the world. Pushing through rivers and forests, fighting the cold, bribing and manipulating border guards, gangsters, and secret service agents, Helie and her father finally achieve their goal. But there were many hurdles. In their first meeting Lee Yong Un passed out and was not able to cross the Yalu River that seperates China and North Korea for the planned reunion with his mother, Lee's maternal grandmother, who was waiting at a hotel in northern China.
The rescue received widespread media attention, including an ABC Nightline story that included footage shot by Helie Lee in Korea. At her talk at Calvin she will show some of that footage.