This article was originally published in the June 2010 issue.
In honor of the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War (1950-1953), the children and grandchildren of survivors recall precious family stories.
Compiled by JULIE HA and KAI MA
Before my father passed away, he shared with me his pride in dodging two drafts. One was during Japan’s occupation over Korea to fight in the Pacific War, and the second was to fight in the Korean War. Instead, my father and uncle bought a U.S. military cargo truck off the black market and transported food and emergency supplies to families that were hiding in the mountains. As the youngest of 10 children growing up in the United States, with parents who couldn’t speak English, I didn’t know my father very well. But I realize now where my anti-war spirit and resistance comes from.
- Christine Ahn, 37
My father always talked about there not being enough to eat, eating watery soup made with grass, and his mother combing the rice paddies for fallen grains. He once spoke of having lied about his age (being in his early teens) and taking part-time work dragging supplies up the mountains for the U.S. Army. My stepfather was in Korea as a GI, and would get teary eyed at dinner after some wine with memories of what he had seen, but he always focused on moments of beauty. Although he always began with, “Korea was a mess…” I can’t remember how many times he described discovering Seoul court musicians in a house on top of a hill in Busan, doing what they knew best: playing their instruments amidst the chaos of war.
- Soo Sun Choe, 36
My dad—Bong Sik Kim, who was 17 at the time of the war—told me of how he was captured by North Korean troops and forced to walk northbound with his hands tied behind his back (to be forcefully enlisted into the North Korean Army). Luckily, the night was dark due to the new moon and he tumbled down a rice paddy while the North Korean soldiers were not watching. He remained quiet for the next hour until the troops were gone. As he was heading south, he ran into another North Korean officer who suspected desertion and was going to execute my father with his pistol on the spot. Luckily, my father recognized the officer as one of his high school teachers and called out his name. The teacher recognized my father and let him go. My father is now 77 years old and is a proud grandfather of many. He is retired and is dedicated to church and loves golfing with his sons.
- John S. Kim, M.D., 47
Eating and finishing dinner was a nightly encounter of opposing forces. My brother and I, who didn’t want to finish our vegetables, didn’t see why the leftovers posed such a problem for my dad, who always reminded us that there were poor kids in Africa, starving to death. Sometimes he would elaborate and tell us that he was once one of those poor kids, escaping from North Korea with his two sisters, four brothers and our grandmother. Jumeok bap. That’s all he had to eat. A ball of rice, as much as he could collect in his tiny, 5- year old fist.
- Randi Jeung, 27
My dad told me a story about American planes repeatedly dropping bombs all over Korea when he was a child. He remembers seeing dead and injured people along the roads. What makes this story interesting for me is that during all the chaos of the bombings, my dad also remembers looking up into the sky and noticing what he called “shiny, beautiful planes.” He said he dreamed of one day riding in a plane high in the sky. What I deeply admire is how my dad managed to keep alive his sense of wonder and joy, amid the sadness, violence and hardship of his life in Korea and later, in America.
- Regina Hong Apigo, 39
Sherman Oaks, California
My grandfather passed away during the war, so my grandmother was left alone to raise three children: my father and his two younger sisters, aged 3 to 6 at the time. A single mom, she, along with some relatives, fled their village one day. When they got to a swollen river, they saw many baby girls who were left behind by families. They were crying along the riverbank. My grandmother’s relatives urged her to leave behind her two daughters and just take her son. She was horrified at the thought, and instead, took all three children down the long way around the river so they could stay together, even though this path was more dangerous. My grandmother’s love for her children, and her determination and resilience, have affected me very deeply. This year she is celebrating her 90th birthday.
- Lee Ann Kim, 39
San Diego, California
My mother was 2. She was carried on her mother’s back while escaping south from North Korea. My father was 4. He lost his younger brother through malnutrition and had to watch his parents bury him along the side of the road. My father later lost his parents and grew up in an orphanage. My maternal grandfather died never having seen his siblings in North Korea again.
- Connie Park, 29
My father-in-law grew up in North Korea, but during the war, a few of his family [members] escaped to South Korea. He remembers the hunger. He would tell us that his dad would look towards North Korea and miss his family.
- Jamie Lee, 34
Diamond Bar, California
My mother was 8 when the war started. Fleeing the fighting, my mother and her family trekked all over the peninsula, from Seoul to Jeju to Busan. In between the running, there wasn’t much to entertain the kids with. So my mother would collect little silver bullets or bullet casings that she’d find on the ground. She didn’t know what they were and thought they were pretty—until a neighbor told her that the bullets could explode. So she threw them away.
Anna M. Park, 40
- Los Angeles, California
When North Korean forces took over Seoul, the majority of South Koreans, including my mother’s family, fled to Busan, the southernmost point that hadn’t yet been taken. This was about six months after the war broke out. My mom told me she and her family took a train to Daegu that lasted 10 days because of the frequent stops they had to make to give trains carrying war supplies right of way. Today it takes less than two hours. It was especially hard because her father had just suffered a stroke, but there were no doctors around. They finally found an herbal medicine doctor that treated him and helped him survive the strenuous trip. After a few months in Daegu, the family moved to Busan, where they settled for nearly two years. Undaunted by the war, my mother continued her grammar school education there. “We studied in the mountains in makeshift classrooms, using long, wooden benches as chairs and tree branches to hang boards,” she told me. “We were pretty intent on continuing to learn despite the chaos.” To this day, I’m amazed at this “life goes on” attitude, despite an ongoing war. This is a testament to the indomitable spirit and strength of all war survivors, including my mother.
- Namju Cho, 38
Los Angeles, California
My mother’s family had been well-off before the war, but they were forced to give up everything and relocate once the conflict began. She occasionally described sad memories of what it was like growing up poor, but more often than not, she would tell me stories of her childhood that were full of humor and mischief. For example, she told me that as a child, she and her friends would often beg American GIs for chewing gum. Each child would chew on a single wad of gum for days, sticking the gum on her bedpost at night and then chewing again in the morning. Every couple of days, all of her friends would swap the gum they were chewing so that each person could taste a different flavor. Of course, all the flavor had already been drained by then, but they didn’t care. They were just happy to be chewing something that didn’t taste like rice.
- Yul Kwon, 35
It was at my grandmother’s funeral that I learned I had Chinese relatives. My father’s family got separated during the war, and my uncle fled to China while everybody else went south. He lived out the rest of his days as a Korean Chinese, and his widow came to my grandmother’s funeral. As I drove her around LA, conversing as best I could with the year of Mandarin I’d taken in college, I felt the war as a very live thing, finding unexpected ways to alter my notions of family and identity.
- Eugene Yi, 33
Brooklyn, New York
Image courtesy of Peter Y. Maeng