Advertisement
Share

South Korean father searches for son he gave up

Each morning when he opens his eyes, and at odd moments throughout his day, Lee Jae-keun thinks of the boy.

Does he have his mother’s round face? Does he know who his real father is? Is he happy?

Then the guilt invades, his mind replaying the desperate half-century-old gamble taken by a single parent who believed he had run out of options.

The year was 1962. His young wife had died of starvation and Lee was scratching to care for his sickly 8-month-old boy. He begged for rice at a Buddhist temple. He wandered his South Korean neighborhood imploring new mothers to breast-feed his child.

Afraid the boy would die, Lee struck the perverse bargain that would haunt him for a lifetime. He turned over custody of his only child to a mysterious man acting as a broker for his wealthy banker son, who was unable to have children of his own.

Advertisement

The man would care for the boy for 10 years for a fee of $35,000, an unthinkable sum on the war-leveled Korean peninsula. Lee was to pay the money when he collected the boy. He recalls being so desperate that the demand could have been 10 times that and he would have agreed. He never considered the man’s motives. He knew his boy would be safe.

The same could not be said for Lee. In 1970, while working as a crewman on a fishing trawler, he was seized by North Korea, which for decades has systematically kidnapped fishermen from the South to train as spies.

During his 30 years as a prisoner of the isolated regime, his hope for an eventual reunion with his son sustained him. It became a talisman for his survival, fueling a will to endure captivity, until his escape in 2000.

Back in Seoul, Lee was horrified to discover that the boy — now a man — had vanished.

He carries the image of his son’s tiny face in his mind, like a dog-eared photograph tucked inside a wallet.

Lee, 72, shares a small flat with his second wife. The couple have a son and a baby granddaughter, whose portraits hang in the living room. Yet Lee’s thoughts keep straying to the son he lost. Too poor to hire an investigator, he single-handedly follows the few leads that come his way.

This year, the boy turns 50. Lee, frail with age, knows time is running out.

“I don’t want him to have to take care of me,” he says, wiping away tears. “I just want to see his face one more time.”

*

The boy was born May 10, 1961, to a young mother gaunt with hunger. She was so sick that Lee named the child himself, choosing Jong-mok, which means “bright shining dawn.”

Within months, the mother was dead, one of the many victims of the food shortages that followed the Korean War, and the father was forced to carry on with a badly infected foot that caused a limp he still has today.

“If I die,” he told himself, “that boy will die with me.”

En route to an orphanage where he planned to leave the child, he met the owner of a nearby bread store, who proposed another solution. She knew of a wealthy man who would be willing to care for the boy.

The man’s son was a banker who couldn’t have children. The woman explained that the older man had already arranged to take custody of two girls in hope of helping his son create a family, Lee says.

Days later, Lee arrived with his son at an upscale home, where he saw the two girls playing. He handed off the child to a man in his 50s with a white beard and dressed in a traditional hanbok.

But as soon as the boy left his arms, Lee felt a stab of regret. He sensed that the man had demanded such a high fee because he figured a common laborer could never raise the money for repayment. Forbidden to visit the child until he produced the entire amount, Lee would wait outside the house, hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of Jong-mok.

He joined the army, but his guilt over abandoning his son gnawed at him. He deserted his post and found himself standing on a rocky ocean shore, ready to take his life.

“I thought, ‘My wife is dead, my son has gone to strangers, why don’t I just die myself?’ Then I heard my wife’s voice behind me,” he recalls. “She said: ‘Where’s our son? What are you doing?’ ”

Lee decided he would do whatever it took to earn the money to retrieve the boy. He sought jobs on fishing vessels that went to sea for months at a time, jobs that paid top dollar because of the risk entailed in entering fishing grounds near the North Korean coast.

Over the years, Lee’s savings soared. He denied himself so he could salt away money. Then chance shipwrecked his dream.

In the early morning of April 29, 1970, a squadron of North Korean ships converged on Lee’s trawler, taking him and 25 others into custody. The seven strongest men, including Lee, were whisked away to be trained as spies, he says.

During two years of drills, he says, he was challenged by hardships designed to break him. He was abandoned at sea, thrown a kickboard and forced to swim for 24 hours back to shore. He was made to run 60 miles with heavy weights on his back.

In the end, Lee was charged with having false ideology, considered unfit for spying, and banished to the countryside.

He pecked out a life there as a laborer, always under suspicion because he was a South Korean. He met his second wife and adopted her young son.

“He would always tell me, ‘If I die here, take my ashes back home, and find the boy,’ ” recalls his wife, Kim Sung-hee.

Eventually, Lee saw a chance for escape. Using the survival skills he learned from the North Korean military, he sneaked his new family into China and finally to Seoul.

Lee savored his newfound liberty. At last he was free to find his son.

*

On a snowy January morning, Lee sits by the window in his small apartment, his words coming slowly.

Once back in Seoul, he had rushed to the banker’s house, only to find the old neighborhood gone, replaced by a sprawling apartment complex.

Sympathetic officials helped Lee cull their records for clues to the whereabouts of the family. He found the name of the older man with the white beard, but realized that he had never even known the name of the son. Nearly half a century had passed, and many records from the years after the war simply didn’t exist anymore, officials told Lee.

Lee wrote a memoir of his captivity called “Thirty Years in a Bizarre Republic.” The book sold modestly, about 10,000 copies, and Lee gave several news media interviews, always mentioning his quest to find the boy.

That’s when he was approached by producers of a local TV show that arranged family reunions. Lee offered up his leads and hoped for the best.

The producers found the banker’s father, now in his 90s. But when they broached the topic of the boy, the old man threw them out of the house.

“They told me it was no use, he wouldn’t talk,” Lee says. “I begged them, ‘Just give me the address and I’ll go talk to him.’ But they wouldn’t do it. Maybe they were bribed, I don’t know.”

The television station did not return telephone calls.

The trail again cold, Lee still refuses to quit. He is negotiating with his publisher to re-release his book with additional details about the deal he made for his child, hoping to spark a new round of public interest. Recently, a fortune teller predicted that he would see his son this year.

In his mind, Lee plays out a long-rehearsed reunion scenario.

“I just want him to know I have kept him in my heart for half a century,” he says. “If he rejects me, that’s fine too. I only want what he wants.”

Lee says he owes an accounting of his actions not only to the boy, but to the child’s mother.

“When I die, I’m going to meet my wife in heaven,” he says heavily, “and she’ll ask me: ‘How did you do it? How did you lose our son?’ ”

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


Advertisement