Donor shares dramatic tale of escape from North Korea
Pacific edition, Wednesday, August 15, 2007
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Sending a rock to Florida isn’t Harry Lee’s only tie to the Inchon Landing.
A naturalized American citizen, Lee’s memories of Inchon are of hope for freedom and refuge from the chaos of war.
Lee’s own attempted landing at Inchon was just a small part of the lengthy and often dangerous ordeal he faced as a teenager in wartime Korea.
When Lee made it to Inchon, he had just completed a 25-day journey with other refugees seeking freedom in the south after fleeing communist North Korea.
He, his sister and their uncle fought their way past a throng of people trying to get passage on a boat leaving the North Korean shore shortly after the 1950 invasion.
Lee’s parents were less lucky. Before they could get on board, the boat’s captain pushed the dangerously overcrowded vessel away from the shore.
About 30 minutes later, Lee said, United Nations ships and planes bombarded the beach to destroy enemy supplies.
“The whole area was a fireball,” Lee said. “I’m sure my father died on that beach.”
The voyage to South Korea claimed many lives. The boat had no drinkable water, food was in short supply, and strong waves sometimes would wash people overboard.
Eventually, the boat landed at Inchon. But passengers reboarded after hearing rumors that communist forces still occupied Seoul.
The boat landed again farther south at Yong Dong Po. From there, Lee and his family rode a train to Busan.
“We had to ride on the top because there were no seats on the train,” Lee said.
After arriving in Busan, Lee and his family spent a month in a refugee camp before trying to strike out on their own.
“I was walking around, looking for work, when all of the sudden somebody grabbed me by the back of the neck,” Lee said. “I looked up and there was this Korean [command master chief].”
The command master chief, Jung Sung-kwon, asked Lee where he was from. Fearing jail if he told the truth, Lee lied and said he was from Seoul.
Not entirely buying Lee’s story, Jung asked what school Lee had attended.
“I assumed that Seoul would have to have a Seoul Middle School, so that’s where I told him I went,” Lee said.
After finding out Lee was alone and had nowhere to go, Jung gave him work cleaning barracks.
Lee said Jung became like a father to him, ensuring he had food and shelter and, when the unit made it to Seoul, “re-enrolling” him in Seoul Middle School.
Lee had a brief career as an interrogation officer for the South Korean army.
In 1963, he moved to the United States.
Lee said he is grateful for the freedom and opportunity he’s received since leaving North Korea.
“I came from North Korea with nothing. I went to the U.S. with almost nothing,” Lee said. “I did what I had to do. I worked hard and raised my children. The land of opportunity made me a successful person.”
Lee decided to move back to Seoul to live with his son in the mid-1990s. He was able to turn his volunteer work with the Army Career Alumni Program into a full-time job.