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Chong-sik Lee, 86, who escaped from North Korea during wartime, says earthly miracles saved his life

Chong-sik Lee, 86, who escaped from North Korea during the Korean War, is a professor emeritus at Penn who says earthly miracles saved his life during the four wars of his youth in Southeast Asia.

Chong-sik Lee, 86, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, plays tennis weekly at the Great Valley Racquet Club in Malvern. He escaped from North Korea during the Korean War and interrogated Chinese prisoners of war for the U.S. Army before coming to America.
Chong-sik Lee, 86, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, plays tennis weekly at the Great Valley Racquet Club in Malvern. He escaped from North Korea during the Korean War and interrogated Chinese prisoners of war for the U.S. Army before coming to America.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Chong-sik Lee, 86, who believes that earthly miracles saved his life during the four wars of his youth in China and North Korea, raised his arms toward the heavens, which were obscured at the moment by the ceiling at the Great Valley Racquet Club's indoor tennis courts in Malvern, and smiled.

Lee, a University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus in Asian studies, had just placed a lob with surgical precision between his doubles opponents that caused his partner, Dave Fultz, 75, to exclaim, "Way to go, professor!"

Fultz, a retired engineer from Berwyn, grinned at Lee and told their opponents, Roger Casagrande, 80, from West Grove, and Fred Thompson, 75, from West Chester, "He's a champion. And he's the oldest one here!"

"I cannot be the oldest," Lee protested. "I'm only 86."

Lee, who lives in Berwyn, supplements his weekly Malvern doubles match with another one in Gulph Mills and tennis lessons at the Upper Main Line YMCA.

"Tennis has become my 'enabler,' or my health keeper," he said, sweaty and smiling during a recent break between sets.

"The professor will now eat a banana," said Fultz, seconds before Lee found a banana in his backpack and peeled it.

Fultz said it was a rare privilege to know a man who escaped from North Korea and speaks knowingly about a country whose leader, Kim Jong Un, makes frequent headline news but remains as shrouded in mystery as his nation's vast network of underground mountain tunnels that hide its military secrets.

Lee, whose award-winning book, Communism in Korea, written with Robert A. Scalapino in 1972, was revised and reissued this year as North Korea: Building of the Monolithic State, is looking for an American publisher for his memoirs.

Lee was 15 years old, and had moved from northern Korea to Liaoyang in Manchuria in 1946, when his father, Lee Bong-ju, left home to help some northern Korean refugees find farmland to settle on — and never returned.

As the oldest child, Lee became the sole support of his mother, three brothers, and a sister by shoveling snow and horse dung at a Chinese cotton mill during a frigid winter, trying to avoid frostbite.

"We waited for my father to return, but he never did and we never found out what happened to him," Lee said.

"When the Chinese Communist Army took over our town, we decided to leave Manchuria for North Korea. We thought it would be easy because both countries were now under communism. But it was not."

The only bridge over the Yalu River to neighboring North Korea was closed to all traffic. "We hired a Chinese fisherman with his dinky boat and trusted our fate to God," Lee said. Getting across the river was "a miracle" he said, "and we climbed up the river bank on the southern side."

After the Korean War broke out in 1950, the family needed another miracle to escape from North Korea into South Korea.

"My cousins and I were living in Pyongyang, the capital city, hiding to avoid North Korea's draft," Lee said. To flee the country, they needed a truck, and the only truck that the government hadn't seized for the war effort was scattered in pieces all over the city, hidden by a Mr. Choi, a family friend, in the homes of relatives.

While Lee and his family waited in fear all day and into the wee hours of the next morning for Choi to assemble his far-flung truck parts, "I saw the flares from guns firing in the mountains in the north," he said. "I was scared because those flares were getting closer to us, minute by minute. I thought we were doomed."

Finally, at dawn, the truck materialized and carried the family to safety in South Korea.

Lee, whose multi-nation youth enabled him to speak Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English, found work as a translator with the U.S. Army, interrogating Chinese prisoners of war.

After the war, he came to the United States as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, beginning an academic career that took him to Penn in 1963, where he created the Korean studies department.

Along the way, Lee was earning a master's degree at UCLA in 1957 when the international student office informed him that Time Limit, a Korean War drama filming in Hollywood, needed him to translate "Danger" and "High Voltage" signs on the set into Korean.

Lee did so for the price of a cold beer, joked that he wanted to be in the movie, and soon found himself playing a North Korean soldier guarding an American prisoner of war, played by Richard Basehart. He earned $140 a day for five days work. "I bought a Ford convertible and drove it to Berkeley, where I got my Ph.D.," Lee said. "You must look very carefully to find me in Time Limit, which they show on YouTube."

He and his wife, Myungsook, a pianist, were married in 1962, when he taught at Dartmouth College and she gave recitals in Hanover, N.H.

"We met Robert Frost, who kept glancing at my new bride in her Korean dress," Lee said. "Frost would have written a poem about a Korean beauty had he not died the following year. I will ask him about this when I join him later."

The couple has two daughters, Sharon, 54, who lives in Philly, and Gina, 50, who lives in Wynnewood, and three grandchildren.

Lee's Southeast Asian youth was spent traveling "like gypsies" in China, North Korea and Manchuria in order to survive the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), World War II (1941-45), the Chinese civil war (1945-48), and the Korean War (1950-53).

When he was a young man living in Pyongyang during the Korean War, he looked forward to U.S. Air Force bombing raids.

"The Americans were bombing like hell every day," Lee said. "And we welcomed it because the bombings were the only time me and my cousin, hiding from being drafted into the North Korean army, could come out in the yard to sunbathe.

"We watched the American bombers every day, but we lived in a residential area so we didn't think American bombs were going to hurt us. But one day, a bomb somehow came down on us.

"We didn't see the airplane because of thick clouds," Lee said. "But we were experts on bombing and when the airplanes released their bombs, we knew where they would fall because we heard the whistle of the bombs coming down."

When they heard the whistle coming towards them, Lee and his cousin ran into a hole they'd dug, just as their house exploded.

These days, Lee worries about Kim's ballistic missiles and nuclear tests, despite the economic sanctions imposed on North Korea. "Kim Jong Un pushed himself into a corner," Lee said. "His father, Kim Jong Il, was kind of a judo player. He used his opponent's strength to gain as much as he could. The son, Kim Jong Un, wants to punch everybody like a boxer. I don't think he thought long enough about what would happen after he tested those missiles.

"My point here is that his father had an adviser, Jang Song-thaek," Lee said. "The first thing this young man did was to arrest his father's adviser and execute him by putting him in front of what they use in airplanes to shoot down enemy planes."

Kim Jong Un doesn't have any advisers to offer different viewpoints, Lee said, "because nobody wants to be shot. That's why this young man is dangerous."