Danny Lee grew up in a village in North Korea where he was forced to witness firing squad executions of fellow villagers, most of whom he knew. They had been accused of being disloyal to the regime of Kim Il-sung, the first of three Kims to rule that hermetically sealed land. Danny knew he was in trouble when the news of Kim Jong-Il’s death was released in 1994. “Everybody was crying except me, I accidentally laughed,” Danny told a crowd at Club Quarters on Monday, December 3. When that happened, a teacher glanced at Danny and caught his expression. He quickly spit on his hands and rubbed his eyes to make it appear he was actually crying.
Danny said that while growing up in North Korea, his hunger was overwhelming. His mother sold her wedding gifts to buy food. Danny was a teenager at the time and he was angry because he didn’t like the corn rice she had been able to buy. Little did he know that his grandmother was eating roots so that he could eat corn rice. “I don’t remember any happy times,” he said, fighting back tears. He made no mention of his father.
The hunger became so intense that his mother went to China and buy food. The villagers knew that the Chinese had many more things because of illegal DVDs that had been smuggled into the country. Danny waited for his mother to return. One week passed. Then a month. Then five months. He paid off a broker to find his mother in China. On March 15, 2005, he crossed into China and was reunited with his mother. They heard, however, that his grandmother had starved to death.
Danny lived in hiding and in fear in China because Chinese authorities round up refugees and send them back to North Korea, where they are subject to even more brutal treatment and almost certain death. He found a shelter run by Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a non-profit group that helps North Korean defectors leave China. He came to America and worked at a Korean dry cleaner’s for 10 hours a day, but that did not allow him to learn English.
LiNK brought him to Los Angeles where he started learning English and on September 21, 2012, he became a U.S. citizen. Altogether, Hannah Song, president of LiNK, says 24,000 defectors have been resettled in South Korea and about 140 in the U.S. Thousands are scattered through other countries and no one knows how many are living in hiding in northeastern China.
But there may not be as many people like Danny in the future because the North Korean government has tightened the border by bringing in special units of the National Security Agency to replace military units that had been prone to corruption, Song said. The Chinese also have tightened controls on their side of the border and fences have been erected on both sides and alarms have been installed. “The border is no longer porous,” Song said.
Both North Korea and China appear to have agreed to try to shut down movement across their common border not only to prevent more escapes but also to prevent more information about the outside world reaching North Korea. “This is the tightest it’s ever been and it’s really impacting the numbers” of refugees making it out, Song said. South Korean figures show that only 1,400 North Korean defectors made it to South Korea this year, down from 2,700 last year, nearly a 50 percent decline.