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"War Story" (c. 1950–1953, by Elaine H. Kim)

"WAR STORY" (c. 1950–1953, by Elaine H. Kim)


Within a few months of their initial engagement in the Korean conflict, U.N. troops were able to push the North Koreans' front back across the thirty-eighth parallel. American forces, headed by General Douglas MacArthur, pursued the North Korean forces into the communist-controlled territory that instigated the introduction of thousands of Chinese troops into the war. For the next three years, bloody battles raged in and around Seoul.

In this selection, Korean-American writer Elaine Kim narrates her half-sister's family's narrow escape from persecution in Seoul during the initial months of the conflict. The detailed retelling of their flight is accompanied by Kim's meditations on what it means to be Korean American. The differences between her half-sister's life during war and Kim's relatively prosperous existence in America illuminate Kim's experience of living with han, "the anguished feeling of being far from what you wanted, a longing that never went away, but ate and slept with you every day of your life."

Mark D.Baumann,
New York University

See also Asian Americans ; Korea, Relations with ; Korean Americans ; Korean War .

To most Americans the 1950–53 war in Korea is not familiar or interesting, not like the Second World War or the war in Vietnam. Not many Americans know that the United States has been shaping the destiny of everyone on the Korean peninsula since the turn of the century—handing Korea over to Japan by secret agreement in 1909 and helping the Soviet Union divide the country in half along political lines at the end of World War II. Even today, most Americans might be surprised to know how much American "aid" has gone into creating and propping up regimes that are supportive of American military and economic interests in Korea. Traditionally, Korea and Koreans have not been of much concern to the average American. What finally brought Korea into the consciousness of the American people was the war, in which American troops participated.

The morning the war began, my parents were still in bed when I got up. My parents never slept late; it was the only time I can remember getting up before they did. I wondered why they lay in bed and, as if to answer my unspoken question, they told me that war has broken out in Korea.

I had just finished fourth grade at a small town primary school in Maryland and was eager for a summer of bare feet and playing jacks. None of my friends had ever heard of Korea; they often accused me of making up the word "Korean" because I must have really been Chinese Japanese after all. But Korea was important to me because my parents and all the people they knew never seemed to think or talk of anything else.

We had many relatives in Korea then, as we do now. Our family, like so many Korean families, is scattered across the world. My uncle joined the resistance movement against Japan in China, and my aunt joined the Communist movement in North Korea. My half-brother was taken to Japan by other Koreans during the Second World War. Not one of my father's blood relatives ever immigrated to America after he came in 1926, so I have first cousins in China, Japan, North and South Korea, but none in America. We were the estranged branch of the family, living among Westerners who had never even heard of Korea.

Throughout my life, it has seemed to me that being Korean meant living with han every day. Han, the anguished feeling of being far from what you wanted, a longing that never went away, but ate and slept with you every day of your life, has no exact equivalent in English. It must be a Korean feeling, born from and nurtured by what Korea and Koreans have faced over the centuries: longing for the end of the brutal Japanese rule, longing for the native place left behind when you went into exile, longing for your loved ones after being separated by war or the new boundary in your homeland, longing for the reunification of Korea as one nation of people who can trace their common roots back several millennia.

Han is by no means a hopeless feeling, however. It is something like rage. You can see it sometimes in people's eyes. South Korean poet Kim Chi Ha shows it to us in "Groundless Rumors," which is about a day worker who, jailed and executed for daring to curse his oppression, is said to roll his limbless trunk back and forth between the walls of his cell in protest. The sound strikes fear into the hearts of the powerful and lights a "strange fire" in the eyes of the oppressed everywhere.

Liberation from Japanese rule was the holy cause of Korean people my parents' age. Like many other resisters, my father left Korea for Japan as a teenager, just after Korea was annexed. He left behind his new bride who was pregnant at the time with my half-sister. Except for a brief summer visit, he did not return to his native place, not even when his wife died of consumption. Instead, he left Japan on a boat bound for America. He stayed twenty years with a student visa and had various restaurant jobs before he started to work for the U.S. and South Korean governments in Washington, D.C. He and my mother, the daughter of an immigrant Korean sugar plantation worker in Hawaii, met in Chicago and married in New York, where my older brother and I were born.

I never saw our half-sister until I visited Korea at age twenty. My Korean isn't fluent and she can't speak English, but after a year of living with her and her family, I was able to understand most of what she said and say pretty much what I wanted to to her. Because we are sisters, I am always haunted by her stories, feeling that we were like a pair of twins separated by accident. I could have been the one imprisoned for "anti-Japanese thoughts," the one married off to a man I had never met, the one drinking in the fragrance of cucumbers I could not afford to eat. I might have known nothing about American racism. In turn, she could have been the "Chink" or the "Jap" on the school playground, the one with the full stomach and the saddle shoes, diagraming English sentences for homework, ears stinging from being asked by teachers to stand in front of the room to tell her classmates "what you are."

Perhaps this mysterious feeling of being inter-changeable has forged the bond welding many Americans in a nation of immigrants to the people who remained at home. This is my half-sister's story.

On 25 June 1950, when the war began, I was at church with your two little nephews when I noticed people running around outside in the streets, shouting that people from the North had crossed the 38th parallel. I didn't worry much, since I had witnessed so many shooting incidents when I lived near the 38th parallel. No one believed that our country would be divided for long, just as no one guessed that there would be such a terrible war to bring death and destruction everywhere.

The announcer on the radio said that people were being killed or captured in the streets, but I was sure there wouldn't be any fighting in Seoul. I did worry about your hyungbu [her husband, my brother-in-law], who had a job as a reservoir and irrigation worker near the DMZ [demilitarized zone]. Under the Japanese, we Koreans had been out of work except for the worst menial jobs because the Japanese had taken all the middle-and high-level jobs. Now that Japan had surrendered, he finally had work, and we were glad even though it meant he had to live far from home for the time being. I had returned with the children to Father-in-law's house in Seoul to escape the cross-fire in the region. But even though there were rumors that the fighting was coming closer and closer to Seoul and many people were packing up to flee across the Han River, I still didn't think anything would happen and had no thoughts of fleeing further south, since I was physically separated from my husband.

A day or two later, he arrived at our gate, so exhausted by his three-day walk to Seoul without food or sleep that he collapsed, speechless, on the floor. He wouldn't budge, even though there were gunshots all around and most our neighbors had already fled across the river. Father-in-law was jumping up and down screaming that everyone else was gone, but hyungbu said he couldn't move even if his life depended on it.

We finally ran out in the rain, carrying only some rice and our children on our backs, heading for his aunt's house, where we all sat around worrying about what to do. We thought that at least it would be better to be together. I had heard somewhere that bullets don't penetrate cotton comforters, so I wrapped the children up in the blankets. They were hot and I couldn't sleep, but hyungbu, still exhausted from his walk to Seoul, snored all night long.

When we peered outside the next morning, we saw red flags everywhere. The people from the North had arrived. On the radio, the South Korean president was telling everyone, "Don't worry, everything is all right. The North Koreans will never be able to penetrate Seoul." Later, we found out that the president had already fled, leaving behind a tape-recorded message. After he had safely crossed the Han River, the South Korean military blew up the bridge in his wake, even though many refugees on the bridge were killed.

We decided to go back home, figuring that no matter where we were the situation would be the same. The problem was that the North Korean soldiers were looking for young men to induct into their Righteous Brave Army. The North Koreans had access to all the census information and government documents, so they knew how many young men were in each household. Each night they would bang on people's gates looking for young men, who would be hiding under the floorboards or somewhere else out of sight. We would lie, saying that the young men had gone to the countryside to buy food and hadn't returned. The soldiers would ask the neighborhood children to tell them where their fathers were, and some of them would reply, "He's hiding under the floorboards." Then the men would be discovered and drafted. They didn't ask your nephew Sung-hi, though. Anyway, we had instructed him never to tell.

Since the United States was bombing everything during the day, all work had to be done under cover of night, and one person from each household was required to come out to detonate bombs and rebuild wreckage. The North Koreans were not harsh with us because our neighborhood was poor. They said I didn't have to work with a baby on my back and that Father-in-law was too old to work.

I had two bags of rice, which I hid with the linens. Rice was hard to come by then: none of the stores were open, and it was several months before the rice harvest. We bought potatoes and barley and ate that, mixed with a little rice. People were making stew from zucchini leaves and whatever vegetables they could get, boiling them with some barley in lots of water.

When hyungbu could no longer bear hiding under the floorboards and urinating into a bowl, he decided to try fleeing to the countryside to his relative's house. We had no idea that things were even worse there. He couldn't go alone because people were being grabbed off the streets, so he dressed up as an old farmer and took Sung-hi on his back, thinking that no one would try to take him into the army if he had a child with him. If he had gone to Uijungbu after all, I probably would never have seen him again, since his relatives there had become Communists, and he might have ended up in North Korea. We would have been a divided family like so many others who were separated when the borders closed and all traffic between North and South Korea stopped permanently. If he had been caught along the way, perhaps our son would have become one of those orphans crying by the side of the road.

It happened that the construction company hyungbu had been working in was run by men sympathetic with North Korea. Someone came to our house and told me that the people working in that company would not be drafted into the North Korean army. Instead, they would receive identification cards showing them to be draft exempt. Overjoyed, I ran all the way over the Miari hill to catch up with hyungbu, who was trudging along very slowly because he was really heartsick at leaving in the first place.

We were elated at first, but after he had worked for about one month, we began getting scared. The United Nations forces were coming closer and closer to Seoul, and we thought we'd get into trouble for cooperating with North Koreans. Hyungbu stopped going to work and, sure enough, when the South Korean soldiers reentered Seoul in late September, they arrested and imprisoned all of the people who had cooperated with North Koreans, including hyungbu's co-workers. Many people were murdered at that time. Now hyungbu was hiding from the South Korean soldiers. This time, we pretended he was sick. We had him lie down next to a medicine distiller. Because he was so thin and pale, people really believed that he was ill.

By now everyone was talking about how Korea would be reunited under UN forces. We had to go on living: it was autumn, so I went ahead and made winterkimchee and bought firewood for the winter. But in November the UN and South Korean forces were driven back down from North Korea. The South Korean army tried to draft all the young men, many of whom were hiding or running away. Hyungbu was tired of hiding and decided that since he was a citizen of South Korea, it was his duty to volunteer. But how he suffered for it!

The enlisted men had to walk to Taegu [250 miles away]. They were a ragged bunch, with blankets hung over their shoulders like hoboes or beggars. What kind of an "army" was that? The road was difficult and the weather was freezing and the men had to sell their watches and possessions to buy food along the way.

In Taegu hyungbu failed the physical examination. Those who failed were considered of little use and unable to fight, so they were poorly fed and had to live in barns. Many men were said to have died from exposure, malnutrition, and diseases carried by vermin. Somehow, though, hyungbu survived. He organized people to gather wood to sell so that they could buy food. Everyone cooperated with each other, even making trips into Taegu to buy medicine for the sick among them. Finally, these men just deserted and tried to get back to their families.

Meanwhile, I was in Seoul with the babies and Father-in-law. I didn't know how we were going to flee from the battle zone. But one of hyungbu's relatives had connections with a cargo train, so we got a place on top of some big drums filled with gasoline. Even though it was dangerous, everyone wanted to get a place on top of the train. We were so happy that we could get a ride, since Father-in-law was much too old to walk. Rice prices had plummeted in Seoul, so I bought two large bags of rice to carry with us. The train would go for a few hours and then stop for a few hours. Sometimes it would stop on top of some mountain and not move the whole night. We were afraid to get down to urinate, for fear the train would take off without us or that we would lose our places. It took us over a week to get to Pusan.

It was December, so it was very cold. We used our comforters for cover from the snow and freezing rain, but the wet comforters kept freezing. It was hot and sweaty under them, but if we lifted them, we would catch a chill; somehow the baby caught pneumonia. Not having any food, I tried to nurse him, but I was not producing any milk because I wasn't eating anything myself. My nipples got torn from his desperate sucking, and I was sore from his clawing little hands. He was burning up with fever by the time we finally reached Pusan, and I thought that the child was going to die.

The first thing I did in Pusan was rush to the hospital for some penicillin for the baby. We didn't have any place to sleep. Rooms were expensive, and Pusan was filled to overflowing with refugees from Seoul and other places. We were among the last to arrive—we learned that North Korean soldiers had re-entered Seoul just after we left—and we couldn't find a place to stay, so we were sleeping in the streets.

I had earlier vowed to myself that no matter how badly off I was, I would never seek out Small Uncle [Father's younger brother], because he had told us that he had no way to leave Seoul. We found out later that he had gone to Pusan in a truck sponsored by the bank where he worked. He took with him not only his entire family but even all his home furnishings. Now, with my child almost dead, there was nothing I could do but go to the bank branch in Pusan to find Uncle, who was surprised and a little embarrassed to see me. He took me to the place where he was staying with his family: it was a huge house, big enough to hold many families. The floors were heated and the people were cooking and eating almost normally, very unlike refugees. Some of the other bank employees had brought their relatives with them. It was clear that Uncle could have brought us with him. War brings out the worst in people. You never know, not even about your own relatives, until something dreadful happens…

Meanwhile, Father [in the United States] had put notices in the newspapers asking after us. We couldn't even wash our faces on top of those oil drums on the cargo train; how could we read the newspaper? Uncle saw one of the notices and contacted Father, who sent us a little money. Since we were living with him then, Uncle took all the money. Father asked me to write to him, and when I told him about how Uncle had left us in Seoul, fleeing with his family and belongings to Pusan, Father was furious. I got into trouble with Uncle, but I was glad that someone knew what had happened to us.

I was surprised to see so many young men in Pusan. I had thought they would enlist in the South Korean army as they were supposed to and as hyungbu had. How naive we were! The young men had run away from the draft to Pusan.

Since his father was not around, your little nephew went around calling every man he saw "Daddy." I kept hearing about how many men were dying, and I didn't know whether my husband was one of them. One day, your older nephew ran into our house crying, "Mommy, Mommy, there's a beggar coming this way who looks just like Daddy!" Sure enough, it was hyungbu, dirty, emaciated, and dressed in rags and tatters. The new, thick pants he had been wearing when he left several months before were torn and infested with lice and fleas. We burned those clothes, and he washed and got a haircut so that he looked like a human being again. We prepared to move into our household. Like a fool, I gave all the rice I had brought and the money I had to Uncle, so we started off on our own with nothing. People were just constructing shacks here and there with dirt floors and straw mats for walls. We too built one of these.

Hyungbu found work at the docks loading and unloading cargo, but the contractor took the workers' pay and disappeared. We were in real trouble then: the only food we could afford was bean sprouts. We couldn't even buy soy sauce, so we boiled the sprouts and ate them with a little salt. It wasn't even like eating.

When fall came, Father's friend got hyungbu a job. We were paid in barley, but it was better than not having any work at all. Your little nephew would see the autumn persimmons that the street vendors were selling and say, "Mommy, wouldn't it be nice to have some of those soft persimmons?" I would just tell him I'd buy him some later. He remembered my promise for a long time, and he kept reminding me about it. But people were lucky to be eating anything at all back then.

That winter, Father-in-law died. We couldn't even afford to take him to the hospital.

There should never be wars. It's the most blameless ones who are sacrificed. There was a young woman living in the shack next to us who cried all day long. It turns out that she had to leave one of her little girls behind on the road while she was fleeing. Many children were left at the side of the road or dropped into rivers if they started to cry or make noise while their parents were trying to flee under cover of night. Everyone in the group would argue that it was better for one child to die than for a whole group to be discovered and prevented from escaping. How can a mother go on living after she has thrown away her baby?

During the war, Father came to Pusan from America. Today, people can travel so easily between Korea and America, but in those days, arriving from America was like arriving from another planet. I had seen him only once before, when I was about six years old. I remember running in from playing outside to find a strange man eating on the maru (wooden floor veranda). People said, "That is your father." He had returned from Japan during the summer for just one visit to Cholwon. Too shy and scared to greet him, I ran out the back door. Now twenty-five years later, it was so strange to see him—he didn't seem like a father, he looked so young. I bowed to him, and he said, "Who bows to their own father?" He wanted to come to our house, and when he saw our shack, he was shocked. He didn't have much money himself, but he gave us $100, which was a huge sum then; we rented a room for six months with it. Your niece was born in the middle of the night while we were living our refugee life in Pusan. Hyungbu had gotten a construction job, so we had some income until the end of the war, when we returned to Seoul to try to rebuild our lives.

Now that the children are all grown up, I often think about how it was never easy. We worked so hard to send them all to school and see each one of them marry and start a family. Some people want their children to marry on auspicious days of the astrological calendar, but our children married on patriotic days, like Liberation Day or the birth date of Korea's mythical founder.

On the small plot of land we live on in the outskirts of Seoul, we spend our time now growing vegetables of all kinds—tomatoes, cabbage, squash, onions, garlic, and corn—and taking care of our fruit trees. Now that hyungbu is retired, we have time to visit with three grandsons and three granddaughters. I have to work hard, since your older nephew and his family live with us. These days parents-in-law have to bend over backwards to get their children to live with them. In my time daughters-in-law had to do all the housework, but nowadays the mothers-in-law have to do everything just to keep their sons living with them. We don't have any social security or retirement income, so we have to get help from the children. In return, we try to do our best for them. I can say that we have a happy life now.

During the war, everyone was talking about how we Koreans were all going to be killed somehow, either by American bombers or by North Koreans, whom we heard were killing people everywhere. Actually, they were punishing rich people and high officials, but we didn't know what would happen to people like us. Father was trying to figure out a way to bring me to America. People would say to my sons, "Yeah! If you go to your Grandpa, you won't have to die like us." But I was afraid to go: I didn't know where my husband was then; I felt I couldn't leave my old father-in-law; I couldn't speak any English; and I had two small children. Besides, Father was a stranger to me, since I had only met him twice! So I said I didn't want to leave.

Later on I sometimes regretted missing the chance to go to America. Who knows how things would have turned out? Maybe my children would have been able to study and become successful, because in America it seems possible to get somewhere by working hard. In Korea, no matter how hard you try and how much you work, you don't necessarily get anywhere at all. Just think, if my husband or my sons had worked as hard in America as they have in Korea, they might have received a real reward for their effort. On the other hand, maybe American life would have ruined my children. It seems that people in America don't think very much about their parents or their families. And what if my own grandchildren couldn't even speak to me in our language? Or what if hyungbu and I had returned to Korea, leaving our children in America like so many older people do? We haven't much money and wouldn't be able to see our children and grandchildren often like we do now. And after all, we do love our country.

We are Koreans and we want to remain Koreans. My second son says that he'd rather live in the filthiest and poorest Korean place than in the most luxurious American place, just because he wants to live in his own country. Even though we aren't as comfortable, we like living in our own country. There's no place like your own country. During the past ten or fifteen years, many people have been leaving for the States and Canada. Of course ordinary people can't emigrate, since you need money to emigrate. The people who really need to emigrate so they can work to eat can't afford to go. The ones who leave are pretty well off. They sneak money out with them so they can start businesses, make money, and live out their dream of being like kings and queens in foreign countries. Sometimes these days, people in Korea criticize those who leave for America, saying they have deserted their motherland, taking all their wealth with them and leaving the problems for someone else to solve.

When my sister says this about Korean immigrants deserting their homeland, she only reinforces my own concern for the well-being of Koreans, both in America and in Korea. As a Korean American, I support movements for democratic reforms in South Korea, am critical of Japanese and U.S. exploitation of Korea, and cherish a vibrant hope for national reunification. At the same time, I live and work in the United States, and I feel I must find ways to work against racism and toward our community's strength, health, and self-sufficiency.

I often think about what it would have been like for my sister and her family to have immigrated to America, just as I wonder what my life would be like now if I had been born and raised in Korea. I always conclude that things turned out better this way. I probably would not have finished school in Korea—how could I have passed those excruciatingly difficult college entrance exams? In fact, I would probably have been married off at the "appropriate time" and pressed into a role that Korean women of my generation rarely escaped, a role that many women born and raised in the United States would find difficult and unattractive. But although my sister does not enjoy the same material possessions Americans do, she is still happy because she stayed in the country she loved, among her friends and family members, speaking her native language, instead of living as a stranger in an adopted land.

Nonetheless, there is a branch of the family she can visit in America. The last time we parted—she has visited America four times now, and I have lived at her house in Korea—I teased her about how she always weeps as if we were never going to meet again, even though we see each other every few years. She didn't shed a tear when she left Oakland this time.


SOURCE: Kim, Elaine H. "War Story." In Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women by Asian Women United of California. Edited by Asian Women United of California. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

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