Helie Lee was only 4 years old when her parents sold most of their possessions and moved their family from Seoul, South Korea, to Montreal in 1968. A year later the family settled in Southern California, where Lee’s upper-middle-class existence left little time for thinking about her roots—unless it was the ones on her head. “I bleached my hair with Sun-In and lemon juice,” says Lee, now 37. “My parents said you can be anything you want in America. I really wanted to be a white Jewish girl.”
Her goals evolved as she grew—in 1986 she got a degree in political science from UCLA and later worked as a script supervisor on TV shows including Saved by the Bell. But it was a letter her then 79-year-old grandmother, Baek Hong Yong, received in L.A. in 1991 that transformed how Lee saw the world—and herself. Written by a granddaughter Baek didn’t know she had, the letter informed her that the son she thought she had lost forever 41 years earlier—Helie’s uncle Lee Yong Woon—was alive, living in exile with his wife and children in remote Hyesan City, North Korea.
“It was as if a ghost had been resurrected,” says Lee, who hadn’t even been aware she had an uncle in North Korea, let alone that her grandmother, who had become separated from then 16-year-old Yong Woon as she and her four other children fled communist North Korea in 1949, had been writing futilely to that country’s government seeking information about him ever since. Lee’s parents and her grandmother, who died last month at age 90, “kept all this from me to save me the heartache,” Lee says. “That’s very painful to realize—if I had known, maybe I could have helped.”
As her just-published memoir, In the Absence of Sun, makes clear, she got her chance. In harrowing detail the book chronicles Lee’s journey to rescue the ailing Yong Woon, his wife, four children and three grandchildren from Hyesan City, one of the poorest regions in North Korea, and lead them to freedom across the border into China. The rescue, which she undertook in 1997 with her father, Jae Hak, now 67 and a retired electrical engineer, set the family back $80,000 (in fees to guides, bribes to North Korean officials and travel expenses) and could easily have cost far more: If caught helping refugees escape, Lee could have been imprisoned and her relatives executed. But she knew she had to take the risk. “My grandmother said her only wish,” Lee says, “was to see her son one last time.”
Initially Lee hoped simply to fulfill that wish. In the summer of 1997 Baek accompanied Lee and her father on a visit to China. While Baek, who was in frail health, waited at a hotel in Shenyang, Lee and her father traveled five hours by car to the border of bleak, heavily guarded Hyesan City, intending to sneak Yong Woon back to his mother’s hotel room for a brief reunion. But the 62-year-old they met that April day was unable to accompany them to the hotel, for not only was Yong Woon on the brink of starvation, he was also suffering from a heart condition that had gone untreated because medical help was scarce. “Seeing him emaciated and frail, it would have been very difficult to return to a privileged life in America,” Lee says.
So she and Jae Hak returned to L.A. and began making plans. With support from her mother, Lily, now 62, a homemaker, and siblings Julie, 40, an optometrist, and brother David, 33, a musician, Lee contacted a Korean guide who had experience planning escape routes out of North Korea. On Aug. 18, under cover of darkness, she and Jae Hak helped Yong Woon and three relatives across the Yalu River into China. (A second trip 20 days later freed five other relatives.) After two weeks of hiding out in Chinese safe houses, the group made it to the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, and was granted asylum.
Four months later Lee’s family were reunited with their North Korean relatives in Seoul. Yong Woon told his story: how he had been captured in the 1950s for starting an anticommunist youth group; how he had been sent to a juvenile detention center; how he and his wife were exiled to Hyesan City in the 1970s when the government learned he was from a family of Christians and landowners. Baek cried tears of sorrow mixed with joy. “I was able to hold him next to my heart,” she told PEOPLE shortly before she died. “The pain of the past was released.”
But if Lee has her way, it will not be forgotten. In addition to her writing career (her first memoir, Still Life with Rice, based on her grandmother’s memories of war-torn Korea, came out to critical acclaim in ’96), she lectures on North Korean history and politics at colleges and universities. She also remains in close contact with Yong Woon, who lives with his wife, children and grandchildren in Seoul, where he volunteers for a local church and is in good health. “He says he is living a second life because of us,” says Lee’s father, Jae Hak.
Lee too is preparing to enter a new stage: This summer she will wed Peter Yum, 38, a special-effects film editor. Her grandmother will surely be there in spirit: Seeing Lee marry and have a family was her one remaining wish. “I feel that pressure,” Lee says, smiling. “It’s pretty intense.”
Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles