Saturday, June 23, 2007

From a Lead Role in a Cage to Freedom

Lee Chan emerged as the unofficial leader of dozens of North Korean refugees held at the detention center in Bangkok, Thailand. S

tanding with attitude in a visitation pen filled with detainees from all over Southeast Asia, openly smoking cigarettes he had somehow managed to get, speaking in a cocksure manner, he seemed a natural-born leader. He loomed large.

Despite the hardships he had endured in the North and during his escape through China, he also looked younger than a man in his late 30s. But the months since his arrival in South Korea last December had changed him. He now lived in a place he had never imagined occupying, one of the new, nondescript towns on the periphery of Seoul, dotted with identical white-and-blue high rises.

“I’ve lost a lot of weight — it’s the stress from living in South Korea,” Mr. Lee said, shifting uneasily inside his own apartment, which he had furnished sparsely with part of the resettlement money the South Korean government gave to each North Korean arrival.

Worries were ruffling him. He had to pay off the $3,400 he owed the brokers who had smuggled him across China and through the Golden Triangle into Thailand. He had to find a way to bring over his 62-year-old mother, who is in hiding in northeast China. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend, a North Korean who had shared the journey with him to South Korea and had sustained him during the bleakest moments.

“When I think about all the things I have to do here, I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “I feel so small.”

[Excerpt from The New York Times]

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