Korean American women tell about the war’s effect on their lives | By Martha Vickery (Summer 2020 issue)
Four women told their stories about how the Korean War changed their lives in an online forum as part of a series of commemorative events for the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.
The event Intergenerational Korean American Women’s Dialogue and Virtual Vigil, featured two women with personal memories of the war, and two who knew the war only from passed-down family stories. The testimonies showed how family separations and memories of the Korean War reverberate into the lives of children and grandchildren of post-war immigrants to the U.S.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) gave an introduction to the event by announcing her advocacy for families separated by the division of Korea after 1948, and her authorship of a bill to direct the U.S. State Department to engage with South Korea to include Korean Americans in family reunions between separated families in the South and North. In the past, when allowed by North Korea, family reunions have not included Korean Americans. The Divided Families Reunification Act passed the House; and has not been voted on in the Senate.
Moderator Ji Yeon Yuh, a history professor at Northwestern University, who works with the Korea Peace Now campaign in Chicago said the forum on women’s stories was created “because in order to walk the road to peace, we must be able to encompass diverse and sometimes even contrasting experiences and perspectives.”
Joy Lee Gebhard (Bok Shin Lee), a former social sciences instructor and nurse from northern Virginia, showed a photo of herself as a girl in her school uniform the year she graduated from high school in April 1950. Her mother planned to attend her graduation, “but was unable to because the train station had been bombed. After the graduation ceremony, I had to walk 75 miles to return home to Pyongyang,” she related. In June, war broke out. One of her father’s friends who had come back to Seoul to look for his wife and daughter offered to bring Bok Shin/Joy to Seoul with him where it would be safer.
The plan was for the family friend Mr. Kim to enroll her in a school in Seoul and supervise her education. “The day I left home with Mr. Kim, I kept looking back at my mother who stood outside our house watching me leaving. I had a sinking feeling that it might be the last time I would see her.” Two months later, Kim died of a stroke, leaving Gebhard abandoned in South Korea as a teenager. She enrolled in nursing school in 1951, attended Busan University after that, and then left for the U.S. on a scholarship. In the U.S., she said, she tried to send her mother a letter “each time it came back stamped “undeliverable,” she said. It was 38 years after leaving Pyongyang when she traveled back to reunite with her younger siblings who did not remember her. Her mother was dead by that time.
Minju Bae told a story of how her family’s immigration from Korea and experiences with war and its aftermath affected her life. She is a member of the Korean American progressive advocacy organization Nodutol and also a member of the New York chapter of Korea Peace Now coalition. She showed a photograph of her with her extended family, casually dressed and in a rural setting on her grandparents’ farm in Oregon.
She said her grandmother married her farmer grandfather because she was homeless, penniless and hungry after losing everything during the war. Her mother never saw her father again after the war broke out. He was traveling in an area north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and never returned. “It is likely that the border closed while he was still trying to get home,”
Her grandfather lost his farm in rural Korea, and was sponsored by his sister to go to the U.S., while her grandmother stayed behind. She worked at her first job outside her home, while her high-school-age mother took care of her siblings. “My parents moved to Oregon in 1990, and were later joined by my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins, and were reunited with my grandfather as he set up his new farm. For a short time, my parents and I actually lived in the attic of the farmhouse, before we moved to New York.”
The farm was always a refuge, and a place where her mother’s siblings got together and told stories about the war and the dictatorships that followed. Bae’s father, who had worked for the democracy movement in the 1980s, was particularly in danger in South Korea during that era. “My grandmother used to say she was happiest when she lived on this farm,” Bae remembered. “I think by that she meant that it was a time and place when things could feel light, in spite of the past.”
Grace Choi, who works with immigrant millennials as a cofounder of the Re’Generation Movement organization located in Atlanta, gave a millennial’s viewpoint of effects of Korean War. She spoke about the effects on her education in South Korea in more recent years, where she was indoctrinated into a strong anti-communist mentality. “The schools had anti-communist propaganda making contests, and we drew flyers with anti-communist slogans,” she said. Choi’s husband is Jong Dae Kim, grandson of the late South Korean president Dae Jung Kim. He and other progressive leaders have been branded as pro-communist by extreme factions in South Korea. “I had a very difficult time convincing my parents and relatives when getting married,” she said, “since my family also had very similar prejudices.”
Millenial South Koreans question whether reunification is necessary, she said, however, she believes that the millennial generation is also unburdened by the extreme anti-communism of the past and better positioned to carry reconciliation efforts into the future.
Aiyoung Choi said she was age five in 1945, and living with her parents in Shanghai. Born in what is now North Korea, she lived later in Taiwan, then in Japan, and finally immigrated to the U.S., and lives in New York. She is among the 30 international women activists who crossed the DMZ in a well-publicized peace event involving women from North and South, in 2015. The women’s forum was the fifth anniversary of that event.
In addition to Women Cross DMZ, Choi also works for Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and the Korean American Family Service Center. As a young child, she related, she remembers how her father, for days after the Japanese surrender, her father scoured the Chinese countryside, looking for teenage boys who had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese military to work in camps, who were then abandoned by the troops after the surrender. “Day after day, my father brought dozens of these bewildered, dirty, hungry boys home, and my mother gave them baths, food, clean clothes and a place to sleep.” Before they went back to Korea, her father broadcast over the Voice of America radio, the names of the boys who were found, their age, and their home town, so their parents would know they were alive.
At the beginning of the Korean War, she said, they heard on the radio that her mother’s father, a Presbyterian minister, had been taken by North Korean troops and was never heard from again. “Chaos reigned, all my relatives fled for Seoul, and the family lost everything,” Choi said.
After the war, her father worked for the United Nations Reconstruction Agency, and was put in charge of restoring public water to the city of Seoul. The family then moved to Japan, and eventually to the U.S.
Choi said that through working with Women Cross DMZ, “although I have wandered far and wide all these years, Korea is my homeland. From my father’s passionate dedication to rebuilding the country after war, and my mother’s love and longing to go home again, I am committed to finding a path to peace in Korea and my way back home.”
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.