More than 70 years has passed since he had to leave his hometown and his family. If Kyungjoo Lee could have, he would have returned to his home. But for Lee, home was the “Hermit Kingdom,” the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
CGTN’s Connie Lee has the story of one man’s escape and longing for home.
Kyungjoo Lee was born and raised in the DPRK. He grew up north of Pyongyang, in the city of Hamhung, but the last time he was there he was 18 years old. He’s 91 this year, and today, he lives in the U.S.—just outside of Washington—in Annandale, Virginia.
“It’s already been about 70 years for me, and more than 60 years for most of the separated family members. We all long for home,” said Lee.
“At night, looking up at the sky, I think: ‘Oh, those are the same stars that light my hometown.’ When I see the moon: ‘Yes, that moon, too!’ Even when it snows, I imagine snow falling on my hometown.” Lee speaks with tears in his eyes.
In 1946, after protesting against the government, he fled for his life—leaving behind his mother and four siblings.
Lee remembers that cold day in March. “The police force, hanging their guns out from their vehicles, started killing all the student protesters. It was such a devastating sight.”
To survive, he knew he had to leave and go south. A few years later, he fought with the South Korean army during the Korean War.
As his pins and medals on his jacket show, he fought bravely until he was injured by a bomb. His scars remain on his body.
Since the Korean armistice agreement in 1953, millions of families have been separated by the 38th parallel. For more than a half-century, only 21 official reunions between South Koreans and DPRK families have been held.
But reunions between Korean American immigrants and their DPRK families have never happened. Most are now over the age of 80, and for them, time is running out.
Lee is hoping for a reunion soon, even visiting Washington this past week to tell his story.
“I met with different Congress members and they were all interested in the painful story of separated family members from Korea. They said they will do what they can to push for the reunions of Korean-Americans and DPRK families,” said Lee. “That’s great news, it makes me teary-eyed. I’m so grateful.”
For Lee, he’s not expecting the reunification of Korea: “What I want is for both Koreas to not be at war, and for families from both sides to be able to freely contact and meet.”
But until then, his hometown and family are just memories, and a heartache that he expresses in a poem appropriately titled ‘My Hometown Hamhung.’
The last two lines go something like this:
‘Even when I close my eyes, I can see my unforgettable hometown.
The nostalgia of 70 years ago, drawing water from the well, my hometown, Hamhung.’