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American Teen Returns from 'Peace Mission' to North Korea

  • Jack Cooper

On Thursday, August 12, Jonathan Lee, a 13-year-old American boy, embarked on a journey that few other people, not to mention 13-year-olds, would ever even consider. Jonathan, who was born in South Korea, but lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi, traveled with his mother and father across the globe to North Korea for a week-long trip. Jonathan sought to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and other government officials to pitch his idea of creating a "children's peace forest" in Panmunjom, a village in the middle of the DMZ that has divided North and South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953.

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Jonathan met former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung three years ago and suggested planting chestnut trees on the Korean peninsula. In the letter that Jonathan hoped to give to Kim Jong Il, he wrote that Kim Dae-jung talked with him about his "sunshine policy" of peaceful coexistence with the North. The letter went on to say,"He promised he would take me with him next time he went to the DPRK, but sadly he passed away last year. I'd like to carry on his dream."

Jonathan's father, Hyoung Lee, discussed his feelings about his son's desire to travel to North Korea.

"When growing up, I was always taught, don't talk or associate with any North Korean people," he said. "So this is kind of shocking to me that my son wants to go in. Honestly I haven't slept for a few weeks after he said he wants to go."

Although Jonathan didn't get the opportunity to meet Kim Jong Il, he was able to travel to the DMZ and pitch his idea to other North Korean officials. Upon his arrival back in Beijing a week later, Jonathan was met by a crowd of reporters anxious to hear about his adventure.

"On this trip, I discovered that both sides want reunification, and that Korea is one," he said. "So I see hope on the Korean peninsula. I went to several places, but the place that made the biggest impression on me was the DMZ. It is where I hope that there will be a children's peace forest one day."

When asked about his interactions with the North Korean government officials, Jonathan said, "They seemed pretty impressed with my idea, but they said that first you would have to sign a peace treaty between North Korea and America because they are still at war with eachother officially, and then you could plant a children's peace forest after the peace treaty. But right now you can't do it."

The lack of diplomatic relations between North Korea and the U.S. makes private visits to the North by Americans extremely rare. In recent months, North Korea has in fact detained four Americans for illegal entry, and one is still in prison there. While both of Jonathan's parents shared concerns about the family's safety on the trip, those fears turned out not to be an issue. In fact, Jonathan's mother, Melissa Lee, said the trip was a moving experience.

"For him to want to do this on his own, I'm fairly proud of him," she said. "He may not have met the commander, but the fact that he did it was something."

Despite the vast political obstacles that exist between the U.S. and North Korea, Jonathan said he'll continue pushing the idea for a peace forest to allow interaction between children from the two sides, and hopes to visit North Korea again next year.