I Fled Communist North Korea as a Teenager

From the Peninsula to the Washington Post, Dr. Jhong Sam Lee came a long way from his humble beginnings on a rice farm near Kiljoo, Korea, which became a part of North Korea when Korea divided. This otherwise unknown city was to garner worldwide prominence when the late North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il, reportedly held an underground nuclear test there in 2006 and again in 2009.

In a harrowing story, a 15-year-old Lee shunned enlistment into his homeland’s communist army and left home for fear of bringing retribution to his family. A series of watershed life events caused Lee to head south to join the Republic of Korea’s army to fight during the Korean War. Later captured by the North Koreans, he escaped and was eventually rescued by a group of US soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard.

In a short respite from the military and a security-related path, Lee was accepted into high school for excellent math scores and later accepted into the leading university in South Korea, Seoul National University, to study mathematics as well. However, his passions belied his official chosen course of study. Lee soon realized his love of physics and engineering, and in an epiphany, decided to pursue his dream in the United States, not coincidentally, at the University of Oklahoma. In 1955, he arrived at the port of San Francisco with no more than $80 dollars in his pocket and the euphoria of his dreams tucked inside of his cargo ship pass.

Lee graduated from the University of Oklahoma and later received his master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from George Washington University. The impetus to a life in defense and communications technologies begins shortly thereafter. The now Dr. Lee consulted for the Naval Research Laboratory and Radiation Systems Inc. of Mclean and worked as an advisory engineer for military satellites at IBM. Later becoming the Associate Director of the advanced system analysis office at Magnavox, Lee set the groundwork for founding his own military and satellite R+D firms.

In his exploits, Dr. Lee developed technology for use in Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA)-based cellphones. In a personal commentary on his life, Dr. Lee was known to have taken delight in one of his headlining publications, the “CDMA Systems Engineering Handbook”(1998), dropping from $800 to $113.32 dollars for a used copy on Amazon.com because the price-drop gave more people access to his book.

Further, Dr. Lee was named a life fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology, having quipped that, “this was a big deal to a farm boy from North Korea!”

The farm boy from North Korea, who said that one of his most critical decisions was “to come to the United States of America where [he] was afforded the opportunities to pursue education, business, and every liberty as a naturalized American citizen,” epitomizes the importance of cultural awareness, not only for the growth of the United States but for the safety of all those who engender the values we hold dear.

In commemoration of Dr. Lee’s service to the United States, the Lint Center has added Dr. Lee and his story to the “Lee and Byun International Relations and Cultural Awareness Scholarship” to illustrate the value and potential in cultural awareness and language acquisition.