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A Journey of the Heart and Soul


With her sweep of dark hair and effervescent personality, Helie Lee greets a visitor to her home with a warm embrace. As she bounds into the kitchen to make tea, it is hard to imagine this Topanga Canyon bohemian, casually clad in a white cotton shirt and bluejeans, is the same woman who risked her life smuggling relatives out of North Korea.

The 37-year-old has chronicled that adventure in the book "In the Absence of Sun," recently published by Harmony Books. The title refers as much to the literal dark and cold of her journey to smuggle her uncle and his eight family members out of the oppressive communist regime as to the loss her grandmother endured when she fled North Korea at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 with only four of her five children. Her eldest son, then 16, had gone off to fight, his location unknown, and Lee's grandmother, Baek Hong Yong, had to leave while she had the opportunity to ensure the safety of her other children.

That lost boy, Lee's uncle Lee Yong Woon, came crashing back into Lee's life in 1991 after a 41-year search by her family to locate him. Another uncle had tentatively located his brother in a small village, but he couldn't confirm it was his older brother, until the day a letter arrived from Yong Woon's daughter, Ae Ran, who wrote of her family's desire to reconnect with their long-lost American relatives. After 41 years of not knowing if her oldest child was dead or alive, Lee's grandmother had been given her answer. "The next step," said Lee, "was to reunite them, but the question was how."

Lee's first book, 1996's "Still Life With Rice," was a fictionalized account of her grandmother's life that included the story of her anguished abandonment of Yong Woon. When a translation was published in South Korea later that year, Lee was informed that her cousins' lives were now in danger because the book was critical of the North Korean government. "To be invisible is safer in North Korea," said Lee. The need to get Yong Woon out became even more pressing when her grandmother's health began declining.

A Perilous Journey

The rescue attempt was launched the following year through a series of false leads, smugglers, bribery, threats and occasional appearances by the FBI and the South Korean CIA. Yong Woon and his family--the youngest of whom was a month old, the oldest, 62--were soon to climb their way through the forests and mountain passes of Vietnam and Mongolia.

Lee's family retained the services of a guide, whom Lee never names in her book. "It's to protect him. The work he does is extremely dangerous. His life is already in enough danger, and I wouldn't want to put him at risk further." Lee does say she shared a tumultuous and vaguely romantic relationship with the man during their ordeal.

The passage at last brought them to the Yalu River dividing China and North Korea, Yong Woon's family on one side, Lee and her father 60 yards away on the other. The tension of this first meeting was heightened by the North Korean soldiers who had been bribed to let them continue but who, nonetheless, stood looking down on them, rifles in hand.

"It was a terrible moment of recognition to see how frail and gaunt [my uncle] was as he stood across the river from us," remembered Lee. "I could see from his physical appearance alone how much he had been deprived of from being left behind." Yong Woon was nearly skeletal and dressed in rags. Lee told him that his mother had never forgotten him.

North Korean refugees, said Lee, "are in a desperate state. They are hiding out in absolute fear of being captured and repatriated. When that happens, anything from execution to being put into a concentration camp to being maimed is possible, so these people do not want to be captured at any cost. My relatives carried rat poison with them to commit suicide rather than be caught."

Finally, her uncle's family successfully crossed into South Korea and settled into lives of freedom.

In retrospect, Lee said, "none of us realized what we were getting into. We had thought it was going to take a few weeks, and it turned out to be a seven-month odyssey. There were times we wanted to give up, when we didn't think it was going to be possible. There were too many things going wrong, and if we failed, the consequences were so huge. I would just have to remember that there were nine lives resting in our hands."

Appreciating America

"In the Absence of Sun" also chronicle's Lee's difficulties as an American woman in a society in which even to have a slight disagreement with her father would mean a loss of pride for him, and in which she had to deal with the chauvinistic assumptions of the guide about her intelligence and abilities.

"I had to go to Korea to find out what an American I really am and to appreciate America for everything this country has allowed me to be," observed Lee.

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