Searching for Missing Pieces of a Painful Past
A millionaire’s son was adopted in the U.S., unknown to his mother. He wants answers.
November 2004 | Nora Zamichow
Mee Yeon Lee clutched her 4-year-old son’s pudgy hand as she led the boy into the lobby of his father’s office building. In her other hand, she held a small bag with his clothes.
Two men in dark suits waited. One, a chauffeur, pried the boy from her. Mee Yeon gave him the bag. Dong Koo screamed for his mother. He began to weep. He cried until he fell asleep in a limousine taking him to his father’s mansion in Seoul.
“I felt as if my heart was being ripped apart,” Mee Yeon said.
Then she went to a lawyer’s office and collected a check for $68,000.
She had told Dong Koo that he would spend a few days with his father and return to her. It was a lie, the first of many to fall like downed branches in his path.
It was in the boy’s best interest, she told herself. Mee Yeon believed her son would attend the finest schools. And in a society that prized bloodlines, he would belong to one of the richest, most powerful families in Korea.
It did not turn out that way. For Dong Koo, the parting was the beginning of a 22-year odyssey that took him from his father’s mansion to an orphanage and later to Southern California, where he grew up in a Caucasian family, with an American name.
He was haunted by flashbacks and a sense of betrayal, a memory of having been wrested from his rightful place. He entered adulthood determined to learn the truth about his past.
Dong Koo’s father was Won Man Lee, a leading Korean industrialist, adoption records show. He founded Kolon Industries Inc., a nylon manufacturer that grew into a conglomerate with annual sales of more than $1 billion.
Won Man Lee met Mee Yeon in 1977, when she was a hostess at a yo-jung, the Korean equivalent of a Japanese geisha house. He was 72 and married. She was 18 — slender with long, dark hair and a childlike vulnerability. She became his mistress. Despite their intimacy, she called him “The Chairman.”
He wrote a poem about wanting to grow a rose for her. He told her she would age gracefully and always be loved. She would be his last woman, Mee Yeon remembered him saying.
He provided an apartment for her in an exclusive neighborhood of Seoul. Servants brought whatever she desired. In return, she was expected to wear hanbok, the traditional Korean costume, a bell-shaped dress with petticoats and bloomers. She was also expected to be available to the Chairman at his whim.
“I didn’t start seeing the Chairman because I loved him,” Mee Yeon said. “He was like a father figure to me; he just adored me all the time.”
Soon, she became pregnant.
Her sister, Jung Ja Lee, believed Mee Yeon’s life was ruined. “But Dong Koo’s father assured me he would take care of my sister for the rest of her life,” she recalled. “He kept saying he’d never leave my sister.”
The Chairman was thrilled by the pregnancy and liked to tell people she was carrying his child, Mee Yeon said. Concerned that childbirth would ravage her body, he insisted on a caesarean section. In January 1978, on a bitterly cold day, Mee Yeon delivered a boy.
The Chairman said his youngest son would be placed in his family registry, Mee Yeon recalled. This would secure the boy’s future.
“He did love her,” remembered Jung Ja. “He was ecstatic that Dong Koo looked just like him.”
At a birthday party for the boy, the Chairman told Jung Ja he was concerned about the young mother and their child. If anything happened to him, she remembered him saying, Mee Yeon’s sisters should look out for her and Dong Koo.
“I thought he suspected something might happen,” recalled Jung Ja. “He just didn’t know what.”
Dong Koo was raised by Mee Yeon and her family, a boy in a world that honored males. He snatched treats from his cousins and pulled their hair. He used his mother’s lipstick to paint his face. He urinated on his aunt’s vanity table. His roguery was told and retold with delight.
Soon after Dong Koo turned 4, Mee Yeon began to yearn for a life that didn’t revolve around waiting for the Chairman. She wanted to be able to leave the apartment. She was in her early 20s, in a rapidly modernizing city. She wanted to wear miniskirts.
“Every single day was like hell,” she said. “I wanted to get my life back.”
But it wasn’t that simple. The Chairman’s assistant offered Mee Yeon money to stay with the old man for three more years, she remembered. She declined. The assistant warned that if she broke off the relationship, she would be forced to give up her son, she said.
“I felt like someone had stabbed my back,” Mee Yeon said. But the Chairman was unyielding. Had the child been a girl, “he would have just given me monthly support,” she said. A son was different.
After several meetings with the assistant, Mee Yeon reached an understanding. She would surrender Dong Koo and sign an agreement relinquishing her maternal rights. In return, she would receive the $68,000, and her freedom. She says she thought of the money as alimony.
Her sister and friends told her she was doing the right thing. She could marry, have a family. It was also better for the boy, they said. Should he be raised as the illegitimate child of a single mother — or as the son of a rich businessman?
At the Chairman’s house, Dong Koo slept among the servants on a mat. He learned to steal the sweets he wanted. When he got caught, his stepmother hit him with a stick. She wore green face cream and smoked a lot. She was moody and never charmed by his antics.
Don’t talk about your biological mother, the Chairman’s assistant and maids whispered to Dong Koo.
Three times, Mee Yeon secretly visited Dong Koo with the help of the Chairman’s chauffeur. On the third visit, the Chairman was celebrating a birthday. As guests gathered, Mee Yeon met her son on a street corner near the mansion. Guards pulled the boy from her arms. Dong Koo saw his mother cry. He remembers being told that she did not want him.
Later, he wondered, “If she did not want me, why did she come back? Why did she give me away in the first place?”
The Chairman suffered a stroke in 1985, when the boy was 7. The household staff spoke in hushed tones. Dong Koo was taken to the dentist. He was given new clothes. One day, the assistant told him he would be sent to school in the United States.
The assistant brought Dong Koo to the offices of Holt Children’s Services in Seoul, which started Korean adoptions in the mid-1950s. Dong Koo remembers the assistant handing him a black leather bag and saying goodbye.
“I started panicking,” he recalled. As the limousine pulled away, Dong Koo ran after it, screaming. The car did not stop. The boy was put on a bus with a caseworker and sent to an orphanage 71 miles southeast of Seoul to await adoption.
At the Chechon Children’s Home, Dong Koo sat in a corner, crying. “I want to go home,” he said, over and over.
“Dong Koo was not told the truth when he was released to Holt,” Jane White, a caseworker at the orphanage, wrote in a report dated Dec. 30, 1985. “He was told to study very hard and grow up to be a good person and then he could come back to his mother and father. He has had a real shock when he found out that this was not the truth and that he was going to be adopted into a family.”
He stopped eating. He stopped talking. He sat against a wall and stared. Just shy of his eighth birthday, Dong Koo stood 45 inches tall and weighed 37 pounds.
“I asked him if he knew what happened to people that did not eat, and he said, ‘Yes, they die,’ ” White wrote. “I told him, ‘OK, if you want to die, that is fine with me, but you are not going to die at my house.’ ”
White ordered him to put on his coat and shoes, and leave.
Dong Koo started to cry and promised to eat.
White believed he would adjust eventually.
“I just feel that we need some extra time to work with him,” she wrote. “He is not interested in a new Mommy or Daddy. I am afraid that if he goes too soon, he may never bind to his new family.”
Within four months of his arrival, Holt officials found a Southern California family for Dong Koo. It was an unusually quick placement.
White wrote a letter to the adoptive parents and slipped it into Dong Koo’s suitcase, along with a Bible and songbook.
“First of all, I did not want him to leave here as soon as he is going to,” she wrote. “Since my wishes were not taken into consideration, all I can do for you now is pray, which I will do.
“I don’t know what information you received about him, but what I tell you is strictly confidential…. His father was married and had grown children older than Dong Koo’s mother. This happens very often for rich men in this country, to become involved with a young girl.”
Capt. Martin Roach served 10 years in the Marine Corps as a helicopter pilot, including 13 months in Vietnam. In his last overseas tour, he was stationed in Japan. When he and his wife, Deanna, returned to the United States in 1975, 10 Korean orphans boarded their plane, bound for new homes in the U.S. Something about those forlorn children stuck with the couple.
The Roaches had three children when they adopted a baby from Korea in 1982. Three years later, they decided they wanted another. The Holt agency offered a boy who was almost 8. He was one month older than their biological son, Patrick.
“We didn’t agonize. We didn’t hesitate,” said Deanna, a former elementary school teacher.
The two boys, they figured, would be like twins. They picked out a name — Peter — that they thought would go well with Patrick. On March 4, 1986, the family piled into their minivan to fetch him at Los Angeles International Airport.
After several Korean babies were carried off the plane, an ashen, emaciated boy padded down the corridor. He spoke no English, and his new family knew no Korean. On his first morning, Peter hugged his adoptive mother and broke down crying. After that, he remained distant.
“Peter is still a very frightened child,” a Holt social worker wrote in a report three weeks later. When his parents went grocery shopping, Peter watched for their return at the front window.
The Roaches lived in Rancho Cucamonga, on a 2/3 -acre lot with a pool, two horses, hamsters, cats, fish, ducks, turkeys and a dog. Toys littered the house. Peter preferred to lie in bed.
He spent days crying. He woke in the night, screaming and sobbing, “Om-ma,” Korean for “Mommy.”
The Chairman lingered for nine years after his stroke. He died Feb. 14, 1994. Soon after, Kolon representatives contacted Holt officials in Korea. They wanted to discuss Peter’s inheritance with his adoptive parents. Peter was 16.
Three Koreans flew to Holt headquarters in Eugene, Ore., and dined with Holt president David Kim and Colleen Mayberry, the director of social services.
Mayberry realized the men knew the names of Peter’s adoptive parents, which were supposed to have been kept confidential. “They must have learned this from Holt Korea,” Mayberry wrote in a memo dated May 10, 1994. “We didn’t tell.”
The Koreans said Peter’s father had told his secretary that he wanted the boy to receive $100,000. “This was an unwritten request,” Mayberry wrote. “These men came to see that Peter gets this gift.”
Mayberry was troubled. She wrote: “Did birth father even want child to go to orphanage, or was he too ill to protest?”
Mayberry wondered whether Peter had been put up for adoption so another “son would inherit all.”
She worried about how Peter would react: “How do we tell child, father owned one of 10 largest companies in Korea, and left him only $100,000?”
Mayberry also wondered why the Kolon officials insisted that no lawyers be involved. “If we encouraged family to accept money and sign paper, and if Peter later learned he should have had much more, would Holt be liable?”
Mayberry concluded: “Holt is not legally responsible now and should pass responsibility to Roach family.”
The Roaches agreed to meet the Koreans.
“I didn’t like this at all,” said Martin, now 59, a bank manager. “We were marching into this totally cold.”
At the meeting, Bronnie G. Lee, then credit manager of Kolon California Corp., said the Chairman had been “fond of” Dong Koo. Deanna asked whether the Chairman was Peter’s father. She remembers that Lee replied: “You’ll never find any record of that.”
Lee insisted that the Roaches sign an agreement releasing the Chairman’s heirs from any further financial obligations. The $100,000 was to be used for Peter’s “education, prosperity, health” and overall “best interest,” the agreement said.
Martin remembers thinking: “There’s more money that could be gotten, but I’m not greedy.”
The Roaches told Peter about the Korean visitors and that his biological father had died. They did not tell him who his father was.
Nor did they tell him about the $100,000.
Soon after the Roaches received the money, Kolon made a $10,000 donation to Holt.
Mee Yeon was not sad to learn of the Chairman’s death. She thought she had wasted her youth on him, living like a human doll, shut in an apartment.
For several years, Mee Yeon drank heavily. She felt she had gouged her soul in giving up her son. She wept at the sight of children his age.
In her early 30s, Mee Yeon became the mistress of a Korean-Japanese businessman. She stopped drinking. When they broke up, she used the money he gave her to open a “room salon” — a modern version of the geisha house. The business prospered.
She believed Dong Koo was being educated in the U.S., like the Chairman’s two other sons, and would one day return. She wanted to be able to provide for him.
“I have not married because I felt sorry that I failed to raise Dong Koo honorably,” she said. “Because of Dong Koo, my heart has been in a knot.”
Peter spent years wishing he was white. He hated it when teachers assigned him to sit next to other Asian children. He hated Asian food. He dreamed of altering his features.
He struggled in school, repeating second and fourth grades. He learned to swim, but he never liked going to the beach.
In high school, he pulled A’s in his favorite subject, economics. As a junior, he got his first job, working as a cashier in an Arby’s restaurant. Despite his adoptive parents’ hopes, he remained aloof. He talked back to his mother, ran up enormous cellphone bills and secluded himself in his room.
“Peter had this attitude that he was a royal gift to the world,” said Deanna Roach, now 60.
To her surprise, he never stopped mulling the mystery of his past.
“In adoption, kids go on with their lives,” she said. “Peter would never drop it; he wanted to know who did this to him. It’s something he would never forget and never forgive.”
Peter believed he needed to understand troubling flashbacks — men in suits prying him from his mother. He had trouble trusting anyone. He felt emotionally stuck.
Rifling through Deanna’s adoption files, Peter learned about the $100,000.
Where was the money?
The Roaches said they worried that giving all of it to Peter would be unfair to their other children. So they initially set aside $10,000 in separate bank accounts for each of the five children. Before they could decide what to do with the rest, Martin’s salary was cut in half because of a management upheaval at the bank.
The Roaches said they spent the entire $100,000 on household expenses. “We didn’t just steal his money and run off with it,” said Martin.
When he found out, Peter was angry. Gradually, he came around. His adoptive parents had always been generous. They gave him cash when he needed it and covered payments for his black Chevrolet Cavalier.
The $100,000 gift, he realized, was an important clue. Who gave away that kind of money? In the agreement the Roaches had signed, he saw the name Won Man Lee. He figured he was related to the Chairman.
In February 1999, Peter, then 21, asked the Holt office in Oregon for information about his birth family. The agency refused — no family member had given written permission.
Seven months later, he called the agency again and spoke with Laura Hofer, director of post-adoption services. He wanted to contact his biological parents, put his questions to rest. Hofer said their identities were confidential.
“Though he started out reasonable, he quickly became angry and abusive,” Hofer wrote in a memo. “Peter feels that he is ‘owed an explanation about his life.’ ”
Peter demanded that Holt reach his Korean family and find out whether they wanted to communicate with him. This the agency agreed to do.
In an e-mail to a Korean colleague, Hofer wrote that it was a delicate matter, because of “the problems that Peter’s emergence poses to the birth father’s family.”
In Korea, Kyung Hee Seong, chief of Holt’s foster care, called and sent letters by registered mail to the Chairman’s two sons and to Mee Yeon, according to the case file. She received no response, the file indicates.
Then Peter wrote a letter and requested that Holt forward it.
“Dear family,” Peter said in the handwritten letter, dated March 8, 2000. “My name is Lee Dong Koo, son of Won Man Lee. I do not know if you know me or not, but I need your help. My life in the United States was not the perfect life that Won Man Lee had in mind for me.”
He received no reply. A month later, he tried again, offering to take a DNA test. “I have a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he wrote. “I want to hear from you.”
Unknown to Peter, Holt was able to piece together his family history. Despite the Chairman’s promise to Mee Yeon, Peter had not been placed in his father’s family registry.
Instead, he was registered to a female in-law of Won Man Lee, according to Holt records. The woman “chose to do a favor for Peter’s birth father and his family,” Hofer wrote.
Peter is “legally only an in-law” of the Chairman’s other children, Hofer wrote. “Peter’s half-siblings are probably not responding to his requests for contact because they do not consider Peter part of the family emotionally or legally.”
Hofer said none of this to Peter; she didn’t have the Lee family’s permission.
As for Mee Yeon, she said she never received letters or phone calls from Holt. In fact, she said, she was unaware her child had ever been put up for adoption — until a Times reporter contacted her in July, 22 years after she had last seen Dong Koo.
Digging into Deanna Roach’s file again, Peter came across a business card from the Kolon official who had met with his adoptive parents. Peter sent letters and phoned Kolon officials in Korea. No one responded.
He called the office of Dong Chan Lee, Kolon’s honorary chairman and the man who would be his half-brother. He remembers an assistant dismissing him by saying that lots of people claim to be related to Won Man Lee.
In May 2000, Peter, then 22, called Kolon’s California office and spoke with H.J. Park, president of operations. Park suggested a meeting. Peter showed Park copies of adoption papers from the Roaches’ file and the agreement that his adoptive parents had signed to get the money from Kolon.
At Park’s request, Peter later signed a statement indicating that he believed he was related to Won Man Lee.
Eventually, Peter learned that under Korean law, he had one year to prove his claim that the Chairman was his father. When Peter signed and dated the statement, the clock had started ticking.
Two years ago, Peter consulted Orange County attorneys Ron Darling and Jon Robertson. Peter told them he was the illegitimate son of one of Korea’s wealthiest businessmen.
They found this young man compelling and likable. Maybe it was the unguarded way he laid out his life, or his unpretentious candor. He confessed to having a crush on Paris Hilton because she was beautiful, rich and dumb. (“She had me when she said, ‘What’s Wal-Mart?’ “)
They agreed to represent him. In March 2003, Peter sued his five half-siblings, Kolon Industries Inc. and related parties for misrepresentation, fraud, negligence and emotional distress. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside, asks for $5 million, based on an estimate of Peter’s share of the estate.
In June, the lawyers added Holt International Children’s Services in Oregon and Holt Children’s Services in Korea as defendants, alleging that officials knew Peter was being cheated out of his inheritance and failed to act.
A trial date has not yet been set.
Holt officials declined to comment.
Lee family members did not respond to interview requests.
Attorneys for Kolon and the Lee family argue that the case should be heard in Korea. They say family members did not participate in any scheme to spirit the boy out of their country.
They also say that Peter asserted his inheritance claim too late. As proof, they point to the signed statement he gave Park in 2000 and the letter he sent to his Korean family the same year.
For Peter, this was “a shocker.” All this time, he had believed that the Chairman’s other children were clueless about his existence. Now, it seemed, they had known about his efforts to find them and had deliberately kept silent.
He thought about families he knew. Friends described their unconditional love for their children. What, he wondered, had gone wrong in his family?
“I want a sense of belonging so bad,” he said. “I always feel like I’m alone.”
After Peter told me his story, I learned his mother’s identity and whereabouts from someone familiar with his family. I wrote to Peter’s mother in June, enclosing photographs of him as a child and as an adult.
She wrote back promptly from Seoul.
“I read your letter. I didn’t know what to do with my trembling heart,” said Mee Yeon. “Rather than being happy to receive the first news about my son after so long, I was more shocked that he had been adopted and was growing up in a foreign land.
“For 20 years, I have lived with guilt like a needle through my heart, missing my son but unable to seek him out.”
Asked how she met the Chairman, Mee Yeon initially said she had been hired to perform classical dance at a birthday celebration for him. Later, she admitted that they met in the gentlemen’s club where she was a hostess.
When I told Peter that I had contacted his birth mother, his eyes welled.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s been a fight all this time.” His voice trailed off. “I thought everybody deserted me.”
Peter, now 26, had grown to hate the Chairman’s family. He imagined his half-siblings and stepmother as ruthless, heartless. His feelings about his mother were more complex.
“I wanted to blame her because it would be easier,” he said. “I wanted to accept that I was alone.”
Now that she was about to reenter his life, he wanted her to have a sense of who he had become. He smoked Marlboro Lights but hoped to quit. He drank but was not into drugs. He listened to the music of Staind and Eminem. He was not religious and was a fan of “Star Wars” and the Lakers.
Told that his mother hoped to see him, Peter said numbly that he was not ready. Not yet.
But he did have a question for her:
“I want to know, on my birthday, do you look back?”
Within weeks, Peter was prepared to meet his mother, but he refused to fly to Korea. His mother had difficulty getting a visa for the U.S. They agreed to meet at a hotel in Vancouver, Canada, and asked that I join them.
Mee Yeon, now 46, hungered to see Peter, yet she was terrified of meeting him. Suppose he had grown up to become one of those disrespectful American kids who dress strangely and pierce their bodies?
She started watching television shows about adoption. She redecorated, fixing a bedroom for her son. And she tried to confront her own bias — she didn’t like Americans.
She grew so nervous that her face broke out. She scarcely left her apartment. When she boarded her flight, she prayed that mechanical trouble would ground the plane.
She wore jeans, a black-and-white striped cotton sweater and a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes. Her Chanel purse held a photo of Dong Koo, age 2, grinning boldly.
On the day that he would meet his mother — Saturday, Aug. 28 — Peter started drinking beer at 11 a.m. His voice and hands shook. Sweat collected on his brow. He had gotten up early and bought flowers.
He worried that the cellophane-wrapped bouquet wasn’t good enough. He worried that his mother had changed her mind and hadn’t boarded the plane. He worried that he would yet again feel betrayed.
He worried that he would disappoint her: He had no girlfriend. He had not gone to college. He scraped by on a flight attendant’s salary.
Then he remembered something his adoptive mother had said days earlier. Deanna Roach speculated that Mee Yeon had simply sold him all those years ago. Peter was unnerved by the thought.
“Did she ever wonder what the hell happened to me?” he said. “Why has it been so many years? If she loved me so much, why didn’t she look for me? How in the world could you give away a kid?”
When Peter walked into the hotel suite at the Vancouver Airport Hilton, Mee Yeon dropped her eyes.
Then she covered her face with her hands and wept silently. For nearly an hour, she would not look at her son.
Peter began to speak. “I just felt no one loved me.”
He said his father’s family had destroyed him and he hated his Korean name. His anger boiled and spilled. He trembled and panted.
“I thought no one had the right to love me, that I was just a kid out of wedlock,” he said.
Finally, Peter turned to his mother. “I want to know about my father,” he said. “Did you love my father?”
Mee Yeon cried noiselessly. She could not speak.
Shaking, Peter went outside for a cigarette.
When he returned, his mother had taken her hands from her face. She gazed at the floor. She spoke softly, showing the photograph of Peter as a toddler.
“I adored you,” she whispered. “They could have looked for me, and I would have raised you.”
She glanced at Peter, seeking the face of the toddler in the young man.
He was such a playful, happy baby, she recalled. She and his grandmother had bought him the finest clothes. She described how he ruled his cousins and how his grandmother always carried him on her back, reluctant to let his feet touch the ground.
The Chairman loved him — pampering him first with Western-style baby food and, later, with spare ribs, she said. She told Peter about the time she accompanied the Chairman to a hotel he was building and how he had said that one day, he would give it to their son.
“You were too young. That’s why you were victimized,” she said. “In Korea, if you have money, everything is possible. There were two victims here — you and me.”
They had spent three hours together, and they had not touched. They maintained the distance of strangers.
The next morning, they met in the hotel restaurant for breakfast and sat across the table from each other. Their conversation lurched from one topic to another. How, he wondered, do you catch up on 20 years?
Mee Yeon looked exhausted. She and Peter agreed to meet again that afternoon. Peter headed to the nearest mall. He knew that Koreans maintained a tradition of gift-giving, and he had shown up with nothing.
Back in the hotel suite, Mee Yeon looked down as soon as Peter entered. They talked of the last time they had seen each other — the Chairman’s birthday when she hugged him on the street corner before security guards pried them apart.
Peter told her he was locked up in a room after that. Mee Yeon’s hand slid over her mouth. Mee Yeon said she returned several days later and learned the sympathetic chauffeur had been transferred. At the local market, the old woman behind the counter said she hadn’t seen the boy for days.
“I was just lost,” said Mee Yeon.
When she heard of the Chairman’s death, she said, she believed Peter would be returned to her. “Frankly, I can’t understand, and I’m totally enraged that they abandoned my child,” she said. “I’m trying to stay as calm as I can, but inside, it’s just fire.”
Peter tried to console her.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I cannot be excluded from blame.”
Peter gave his mother a silk scarf with a wavy black-and-white pattern. She beamed and placed it around her neck. “You were always in my heart,” she said. “Always.”
Peter reached into a bag and gave her a red cap with a Canadian flag, and a teddy bear.
Peter’s palms were suddenly clammy, and he looked uncomfortable. He stood up awkwardly. He paused, bewildered, as though he had forgotten what he intended to do.
He slowly crossed the room. Mee Yeon stared at the floor. Peter knelt at her side. He wrapped his arms around her.
“Please don’t feel any shame. I never thought I’d touch my mother. I have been scared for 20 years. The last time I held your arms, it was the most terrifying. But I made it; I survived.
“Look at me, I’m a grown person. It’s me. It’s your little Dong Koo. I’m stronger now. After 20 years, I hold your arms again and no one is going to take me away.”
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