WASHINGTON - Sungju Lee is a graduate student in London today. During his childhood, his father was in North Korea’s military and they lived in Pyongyang when founder Kim Il Sung was alive. Lee doesn’t have many memories of the eldest Kim, but recalls, “He was God.” Lee thought of Kim Il Sung as being “above human beings.”
In Pyongyang, Lee enjoyed a rather lush life: excellent Taekwondo classes, good schools, and plenty of food on the table. One day, “my father came to the house and then just told me that we’re going to the northern part of North Korea for vacation,” Lee said.
He remembers feeling excited, after all; he was a young boy heading out for a vacation away from the city, but on the train out of Pyongyang, he realized something was amiss because they had to change trains at one point.
“The condition of [the second train] was really bad,” he told VOA’s Asia Weekly podcast. “It was smelly. He said, “There weren’t even any proper chairs on the train. It was packed with people. Some people [also] covered their faces with blankets [and others] were wearing some sort of plastic bags. And I was [wondering] what was going on. And I asked my father, ‘What is this? Are we in North Korea now?’ He said, ‘Yeah, of course.’”
Life in Gyeong-seong was rough and his family struggled. After a year, his father left, making his way to China. His mother told him that she thought his aunt might have some food for them and she wanted to visit her alone. Lee, after losing his father, didn’t want his mother to go, so he stayed with her all night, holding onto her her hand in order to keep her close.
“And then in the morning I was really tired. And then I just closed my eyes. [Later I] opened my eyes and I was in blankets, but there was no mother,” he said.
That devastated Lee and his world collapsed. Without any way to provide for himself, he found himself on the streets, forming a gang with other kids in order to pickpocket, steal food, or earn money by taking men to see “night flowers,” a euphemism for prostitutes.
Lee knew stealing wasn’t right, but remembered, “The first time stealing was really, really difficult. The second time got easier. The third time was much easier. And then after fourth time, fifth time …it became my job.”
He was on the streets for four years, moving from town to town, because staying too long in one place would mean merchants would recognize them and stop them from looting.
He returned to Gyeong-seong in February 2001 and went to the train station, looking for a mark to steal from when an elderly man approached him. The man said he knew Lee and wanted to take him home. After conferring with his gang, Lee agreed to go with the man, provided he could bring along his friends, too. The man agreed, and unbeknownst to him, Lee was plotting to rob him of everything of value he had.
“[When] I entered his house, I [began searching for something precious I could steal] because we had to steal everything from his house. Then my eyes went to the wall. There was my mother’s wedding picture. [The man] was my real grandfather.”
Lee's grandfather had lost touch with his daughter four years earlier. Officials in Pyongyang told him that the entire family had been relocated to Gyeong-seong, and for the past four years, he went every Sunday to the train platform searching for his daughter.
Lee told his friends they couldn’t steal from the man and they left while he stayed. In October 2002, a man came to his grandfather’s house, sent by his father. The man helped Lee defect to South Korea and ultimately reunite with his father.
Sungju Lee’s complete story can be read in the new book Every Falling Star. It’s available beginning September 13, 2016.