For much of his 32 years, Lee Kwang Soo knew one thing: the North Korean military.
Up at 5 a.m., he trained all day, learning infiltration and survival techniques. He even learned to speak with a South Korean accent from criminals who defected to North Korea to escape punishment. His parents haven't seen him since he entered a secluded military base at age 17. His wife, introduced to him by the communist party because she was "loyal" to the regime, only met him once a month.
And so it might still be. But Mr. Lee's life took a dramatic turn on Sept. 18, 1996. The submarine he and 25 fellow commandos were riding aboard hit a rock on South Korea's northeast coast during a spy mission. Pouring out of the grounded sub, they fled to the hills, setting off a massive manhunt and freezing inter-Korean relations. All but Lee were killed by South Korean troops or committed suicide. Lee was taken alive.
One-and-a-half years since his capture, Lee is still adjusting to a world he never imagined. As North and South Korea move closer to discussing temporary reunions for families separated by the Korean War, Lee and other North Koreans settling in the South stand as an example of the wide cultural cleft to be bridged.
After his capture, Lee was toured around South Korea by the National Security Agency, meeting people from all walks of life and being paraded out to the press. During this education period he stayed in a safe house in Seoul and was gradually given more personal freedoms as he embraced the South Korean way of life.
For Lee, everything was new, from neon lights and pop songs to managing one's money and open discussions of politics.
His first taste of the South was almost comical and came while fleeing through the mountains. Peering out from roadside bushes, Lee was bewildered by an unbroken stream of cars that lasted for three hours. How could South Korea, which he thought was an impoverished American colony, have so many new vehicles? Soon, he grew hungry and approached a farmhouse for food. Believing the isolated house wouldn't have a phone, he sat snacking while the owners called the police.
Even six months ago, Lee appeared innocent and naive. During an interview he beamed like a five-year-old when pleased and became shifty when asked analytical or probing questions.
It has taken time for him to understand the value of money. Lee would stare at notes of different denominations trying to determine why one was worth more, according to a national security agent who looked after him. "[The agents] bought me everything so I didn't really know how money works," he says now.
He's adjusted a lot since then. "At that time I didn't feel comfortable in this society. I didn't feel comfortable with meeting people. I had to stay with [a national security agent] all the time," he says. Now, "I know the Army and people and law of this country and I realize I'm free."
Today he no longer is watched 24 hours a day and has considerable freedom to roam around the small town where he lives. Although an Army intelligence officer accompanied him to this interview, Lee says he goes to work, shops, plays tennis, and meets new South Korean friends as he pleases. His demeanor is markedly different too: He looks self-assured, laughs a lot, and wears a sharp suit.
Lee enjoys the low-key town he lives in - it's isolated like his old North Korean base. Streets are lined with cherry blossoms and citizens bike the quiet streets. Concerned for his security, he asked the town not be named. He works for "a company" but can't say what he does other than he gives occasional lectures to the Navy on North Korean infiltration techniques.
Lee says he misses his family most. His son just turned 4. But since the North Korean military limited family visits to once a month, he admits he "didn't have much intimacy with them," and looks forward to remarrying.
"As I look back, the life in North Korea wasn't anything I can miss. Everything was so under control. I kind of regret - why did I have to live a life like that?" Lee says.
As a special forces commando, Lee wasn't exposed to food shortages plaguing North Korea in recent years. While he had little opportunity to meet regular North Koreans, he says rumors circulated at his base about cannibalism in the countryside. Until watching South Korean news, "I didn't know how serious the [food crisis] was," he says.
But Lee doesn't personally contribute to the international effort to feed North Korea. "I don't want to give them anything," he says. "If I send them stuff it will be used for the Army. That aid goes to party members and the Army."
Lee should know. A can of food donated by an American religious group was found in his abandoned submarine. The North Korean leadership has "committed too many crimes to our people," he says.
Defectors to South Korea often have trouble adjusting to a capitalist society where they must be very independent and assertive after relying on the North Korean state all their lives. Lee says he's experienced few problems and has no worries. But he has been well cared for by South Korea, which considers him an intelligence asset and great anti-North propaganda. Because of media coverage of the submarine incident, people often recognize him on the street, he says. "I feel like I'm in a different world. At first it didn't even seem like the same Korean Peninsula. The language and customs are very different," he says. "But as I come in contact with more and more people, [I find they] don't treat me as an enemy.... They treat me as their brother and friend."