A Summer to Remember: Youri Lee recounts his unusual time at home

Lily Zuckerman, Features Editor

South Korea is widely known for having very few murders and being the land of “morning calm.” However, this past summer, Youri Lee, ‘23, ran afoul of the law on his way to a convenience store and found himself accused of murder. 

Lee had had a jam-packed summer, attending one summer program at the University of Pennsylvania and another at Cornell University. Eventually, on Aug. 2, Lee returned to his hometown of Busan, South Korea. He planned to spend the last month of summer visiting friends, spending time with family, and working on college applications; but that didn’t play out exactly the way he had hoped. 

On August 26, Lee and his family went to his grandparent’s house to celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival, a three-day celebration of family and food, which would occur when he was already back at Masters.

It was really important for Lee to celebrate this Festival with his family. He said, “I went to my grandparents’ house specifically to celebrate South Korea’s equivalent to Thanksgiving. The whole point of the Mid-Autumn Festival is to spend time with your family and be together to celebrate what you have.” 

After dinner, that night, Lee’s family planned to have dessert. Usually, there is a freezer full of ice cream at his grandparents’ house. To his disappointment, Lee opened the freezer to see no ice cream. He offered to walk fifteen minutes to the local convenience store and buy ice cream for him and his family to enjoy. 

Although it was dark out and he was walking alone, it never crossed Lee’s mind that there could be danger ahead. He said, “South Korea is a tiny country that is very safe. Nothing unsafe happens often here, so it’s normal to walk alone at night, especially for fifteen minutes.” 

Five minutes into the walk, Lee noticed something on the sidewalk ahead. There were no cars around and very dim lights. Since Lee has poor eyesight, which gets even worse at night, he decided to walk closer to the figure. 

Lee described what he saw as he got closer, “There was a person awkwardly sitting next to the wall who was in between laying down and sitting [up]. I knew something was not right,” he said. 

It was really hard to tell if that person was dead or not. I would never expect to see someone lying on the street like that. ”

— Youri Lee

Lee continued, “It’s like a town where you wouldn’t expect homeless people, so I knew that something was wrong with that person and he needed help. So, I just approached him for that reason simply. I couldn’t see if he had blood on his shirt, so I decided to get even closer and shake his shoulder.” 

After shaking the man’s shoulder a few times, there was still no response. Lee said, “At that moment, it was really hard to tell if that person was dead or not. I would never expect to see someone lying on the street like that. I decided that he needed help.” 

Lee did not have a phone at the time because he broke it back in June. Subsequently, there was no way he could call for help. He continued his walk to the convenience store, where Lee bought the ice cream and used the cash register person’s phone to call the police. With ice cream in hand, he walked the same route to go home. 

This time, the scene was filled with people and police. Lee told the police that he had seen this man earlier. “Absolutely nothing happened afterward. I went back to my grandparent’s house with the ice cream and went back to my house later that night,” he said.

Two days later, Lee’s parents received a phone call from the prosecution office in Seoul, South Korea. They were notified that Lee’s fingerprints were found in the DNA testing of a murder case and he would have to travel five hours to Seoul to be investigated. 

Little did they know that Lee would spend the next four days being questioned. Lee’s mother, Kjuock Park, described her thoughts when Lee was in the prosecution’s office. 

Park said in an interpreted Zoom call with Tower,  “When the government called him into the office, I didn’t feel any resentment [towards the government] because it is procedural to do so [after DNA testing]. However, when they took him for over four days, we were all resentful towards the unnecessarily long procedure for something with a lack of evidence.” There was little to no evidence that Youri was involved with this body, his fingerprint was found on the shoulder but according to him there was a line of people in front of him with more evidence.

Throughout the four days, Lee was confined in a room with a bed, desk, bathroom, and no communication to the outside world. “In the daytime, a prosecution officer would sit at the desk and question me,” Lee said. 

Lee described his plan for the investigation. He decided that less is more. He reasoned that the more you say, the more questions they ask, and  Lee did not want to be stuck any longer. He said, “The strategy here was to not talk, give the minimum words as possible, and never say yes to anything.” Fortunately, Lee was able to leave the prosecution’s office after four days, due to a lack of evidence for being a suspect. 

Lee reflected about what he had endured back home. He said, “I don’t think I could’ve ignored the man. Looking back on that night I could’ve  been quicker– I should’ve just ran to find someone faster and not wasted my time at the convenience store.” 

Youri spoke on how this affected him emotionally. He said, “I have no emotion left anymore [when he thinks about what happened]. I came in knowing the procedure held in South Korea for what I got myself into. I just didn’t know that it would be this intense.”

Lee was able to return to Masters on time. Nonetheless, one walk to get ice cream left him with a bittersweet ending to his summer.