Starve to death or flee: one N. Korean's choice

Danny Lee
CBS News

(CBS News) Escaping from North Korea is close to impossible.

That said, CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton did meet one young man who is among the very few North Koreans to have made it to America. In California for nearly 6 years, Danny Lee fled his homeland at age 18.

"I didn't want to starve to death, so I ran," he says through a translator. "My only desire was to eat until I was full."

Hunger drove Lee from North Korea. Danny's beloved grandmother had already died of malnutrition. Two-thirds of North Korea's population doesn't have enough to eat on a regular basis. Lee escaped by crossing the Tumen River into China.

"I escaped at night because if someone saw me when I crossed, they would kill me," Lee says.

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His ordeal didn't stop there, as people like Lee must then blend into the local population since China is hostile to the refugees.

To keep peace with its nuclear-armed neighbor, China arrests North Koreans who cross illegally and sends them back. The refugees face the threat of torture or even death in prison camps.

To avoid capture, refugees travel on a secret underground railway run largely by activists who move the North Koreans from safe house to safe house. Sometimes, refugees literally throw themselves over walls to claim asylum in foreign embassies.

"I knew if I went to the U.S., I could experience a different life, I could learn a new language," Lee says.

These days, Lee works in a Los Angeles grocery store. Worried about discrimination, he hides his nationality, saying North Korea has a terrible reputation

"I think all North Koreans will die of starvation or they'll kill each other. So I hope somebody helps them live in a good place," Lee says.

Danny's found his own good place in the world. He recently reunited with his mother, one of the lucky few who also escaped North Korea. For years, they thought they'd never see each other again, though even now, they can't forget the people they were forced to leave behind.