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Refugee escapes North Korea for a new life in California

Danny left North Korea and has started a new life in California.
Danny left North Korea and has started a new life in California.
Davey Kim/KPCC
Danny left North Korea and has started a new life in California.
Danny and Liberty in North Korea CEO/President, Hannah Song.
Davey Kim

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For decades, North Korea has been known for its bold political statements and illicit military operations. But it’s also known for their human rights violations. Grassroots organizations like Liberty in North Korea help refugees escape the Hermit Kingdom and provide resettlement opportunities for them in other countries.

Davey Kim reports on one such refugee who has made California his home.

News about North Korea may be quiet now, but the humanitarian crises continue. In the last 10 years, almost 22,000 North Korean refugees have fled to South Korea and about 150 refugees have received have settled in the United States. 

Danny Lee is one such refugee, who left North Korean behind and is quickly adapting to life in California.  

So far he likes In-N-Out Hamburger, California Pizza Kitchen, basketball, baseball and hip hop, but most of all, Danny enjoys his freedom.  It hasn’t been an easy transition for him. When Danny first escaped to the United States, it was tough.

"I did not know anything about American culture because I could not speak English. I finally found a job at a Korean dry cleaner but I worked ten hours everyday," said Lee. 

He still struggles with English, but it’s getting better and soon hopes get his GED and the hope of someday becoming a nurse to help other refugees. When Lee was growing up in North Korea, these aspirations never crossed his mind. He was more concerned with surviving the traumas of daily life.  

"When I was a little boy, I saw something that I will never forget. I saw a man shot by a firing squad in front of my entire village," said Lee. "I can still remember each person."

That was the first of ten public executions Danny was forced to watch during his childhood. In addition to violence, Lee also had to deal with famine in North Korea. It wasn't easy for Lee and his mother to keep themselves fed. His mother sold her wedding gifts and she snuck across the border to China to find food while Lee stayed behind with his grandmother and waited.  

But one week turned into a month and then into five months, and finally he was so worried that he risked execution and crossed the Tumen River into China to find her. He eventually found his mother, but later he learned that his grandmother back home had starved to death.

"When I heard about that, when she passed away, I’m really sorry for that because I wasn’t next to her when she closed her eyes," said Lee. 

There was not a lot of time to reflect on his grandmother’s death. Chinese authorities conducted frequent searches for refugees and sent them back to an almost certain death.  To get out of the country, Lee and his mother were referred to an underground organization called Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK.  

"After I found a LiNK shelter, they offered me an opportunity to escape China," said Lee

Lee's mother chose to go to South Korea, but he was feeling more adventurous and decided to come to the United States. 

LiNK is a grassroots organization founded in the US that focuses on the North Korean humanitarian crises. Since 2006, LiNK has helped 141 other North Korean refugees escape. Through the collaboration of LiNK rescue teams, brokers, NGOs, and missionaries in China, North Korean refugees have been smuggled out of the country, but rescue missions and escapes have become harder due to tightened border security. It’s not an easy road to freedom, as Hannah Song, the CEO and President of LiNK explains.

"The modern day underground railroad that North Korean refugees are utilizing today begins from the border of NK and China and it goes all the way down to Southeast Asia. It is approximately 3,500 miles from border to border," said Song. "In 2012, the official number of North Koreans who made it to South Korea was actually down by almost 50 percent."

LiNK has recently produced a documentary on Danny Lee’s life to help raise awareness.  It depicts his childhood, his escape, and a recent high point in his life.      

"On Friday September 21, 2012, I became a United States citizen. I still cannot believe that today that I am an American. I feel so happy because I never thought I could ever vote for my own leader," said Lee. My hope for Korea is that long separated friends and families will reunite, and that one day Korea will become a prosperous nation."

In the meantime, he is thankful for his new life in California, and continues helping other refugees like himself.