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Last chance for Korean Americans hoping to find lost family members

Posted June 10, 2018 11:19 p.m. EDT

— 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.