Sungju Lee had a normal childhood. He played like any other child, took Taekwondo classes, and expected to grow up to be an officer like his father in the North Korean army. With the death of Kim II-Sung, political tensions rose, his father fell out of favor with the new administration, and Lee’s family was forced to flee to the outer, impoverished cities of North Korea.
As a child, Lee was forced to watch a public executions at school and struggled to eat. Both his father and mother abandoned him to search for food – his father traveled to China and his mother went to his aunt’s. They both never returned. Lee turned to a street gang, which he believed was his only way to survive.
Lee picked pockets and stole from local business people to live. As time went on, the fights he got into became more violent. Lee saw two friends die. He was in the gang for about 3 years before it broke up, and he was left alone again. He returned to his hometown and was miraculously reunited with his grandfather, who he lived with until he received a letter from him father. Reunited with his father, they spent years looking for his mother, who is still missing.
The differences between North and South Korea, Lee’s exposure to violence, struggle for food, and the abandonment by his parents have shaped him. He now has studied in the US and the UK and has even published a book about his experiences. The book, Every Falling Star was adapted from Lee’s memoir and turned into a book for young adults.
Every Falling Star was released in September and is available now! Check out Lee’s interview at BBC.
Featured image courtesy of BBC