Mee Yeon Lee clutched her 4-year-old son's pudgy hand as she led the boy into the lobby of his father's office building. In her other hand, she held a small bag with his clothes.
Two men in dark suits waited. One, a chauffeur, pried the boy from her. Mee Yeon gave him the bag. Dong Koo screamed for his mother. He began to weep. He cried until he fell asleep in a limousine taking him to his father's mansion in Seoul.
"I felt as if my heart was being ripped apart," Mee Yeon said.
Then she went to a lawyer's office and collected a check for $68,000.
She had told Dong Koo that he would spend a few days with his father and return to her. It was a lie, the first of many to fall like downed branches in his path.
It was in the boy's best interest, she told herself. Mee Yeon believed her son would attend the finest schools. And in a society that prized bloodlines, he would belong to one of the richest, most powerful families in Korea.
It did not turn out that way. For Dong Koo, the parting was the beginning of a 22-year odyssey that took him from his father's mansion to an orphanage and later to Southern California, where he grew up in a Caucasian family, with an American name.
He was haunted by flashbacks and a sense of betrayal, a memory of having been wrested from his rightful place. He entered adulthood determined to learn the truth about his past.
Dong Koo's father was Won Man Lee, a leading Korean industrialist, adoption records show. He founded Kolon Industries Inc., a nylon manufacturer that grew into a conglomerate with annual sales of more than $1 billion.
Won Man Lee met Mee Yeon in 1977, when she was a hostess at a yo-jung, the Korean equivalent of a Japanese geisha house. He was 72 and married. She was 18 -- slender with long, dark hair and a childlike vulnerability. She became his mistress. Despite their intimacy, she called him "The Chairman."
He wrote a poem about wanting to grow a rose for her. He told her she would age gracefully and always be loved. She would be his last woman, Mee Yeon remembered him saying.
He provided an apartment for her in an exclusive neighborhood of Seoul. Servants brought whatever she desired. In return, she was expected to wear hanbok, the traditional Korean costume, a bell-shaped dress with petticoats and bloomers. She was also expected to be available to the Chairman at his whim.
"I didn't start seeing the Chairman because I loved him," Mee Yeon said. "He was like a father figure to me; he just adored me all the time."
Soon, she became pregnant.
Her sister, Jung Ja Lee, believed Mee Yeon's life was ruined. "But Dong Koo's father assured me he would take care of my sister for the rest of her life," she recalled. "He kept saying he'd never leave my sister."
The Chairman was thrilled by the pregnancy and liked to tell people she was carrying his child, Mee Yeon said. Concerned that childbirth would ravage her body, he insisted on a caesarean section. In January 1978, on a bitterly cold day, Mee Yeon delivered a boy.
The Chairman said his youngest son would be placed in his family registry, Mee Yeon recalled. This would secure the boy's future.
"He did love her," remembered Jung Ja. "He was ecstatic that Dong Koo looked just like him."
At a birthday party for the boy, the Chairman told Jung Ja he was concerned about the young mother and their child. If anything happened to him, she remembered him saying, Mee Yeon's sisters should look out for her and Dong Koo.
"I thought he suspected something might happen," recalled Jung Ja. "He just didn't know what."
Dong Koo was raised by Mee Yeon and her family, a boy in a world that honored males. He snatched treats from his cousins and pulled their hair. He used his mother's lipstick to paint his face. He urinated on his aunt's vanity table. His roguery was told and retold with delight.
Soon after Dong Koo turned 4, Mee Yeon began to yearn for a life that didn't revolve around waiting for the Chairman. She wanted to be able to leave the apartment. She was in her early 20s, in a rapidly modernizing city. She wanted to wear miniskirts.
"Every single day was like hell," she said. "I wanted to get my life back."
But it wasn't that simple. The Chairman's assistant offered Mee Yeon money to stay with the old man for three more years, she remembered. She declined. The assistant warned that if she broke off the relationship, she would be forced to give up her son, she said.
"I felt like someone had stabbed my back," Mee Yeon said. But the Chairman was unyielding. Had the child been a girl, "he would have just given me monthly support," she said. A son was different.
After several meetings with the assistant, Mee Yeon reached an understanding. She would surrender Dong Koo and sign an agreement relinquishing her maternal rights. In return, she would receive the $68,000, and her freedom. She says she thought of the money as alimony.