I can’t walk past the canned goods section of my supermarket without remembering the Korean War.
The neatly stacked cans of corned beef hash transport me to my native Korean peninsula, where I lived through the first months of the war as a 7-year-old.
Corned beef hash was more precious than gold. Whenever my resourceful grandmother managed to acquire a big can of it on the black market, she invited everyone around us to share a “special American” meal. She stretched it by mixing it with rice, stuffing morsels in dumplings and putting just enough of it in soups to make the otherwise thin broth flavorful. Its smell and taste saturated me with a sense of well-being.
Today in Los Angeles, I still bring home corned beef hash one can at a time. I partake of it prayerfully, as a miraculous gift of faith and love amid adversity.
That can of hash, like every other detail of the Korean War, is etched like a newsreel inside my head. The war changed not only the life of my family, but the lives of the more than 1 million people of Korean ancestry who live in America. Awake or asleep, our wish is reunification of the two Koreas and peace on the rabbit-shaped peninsula, which hasn’t lived up to its name--the Land of Morning Calm--for more than a century.
That can of hash reminds me, too, of how long the destiny of 75 million ethnic Koreans worldwide has been intertwined with American foreign policy. President Theodore Roosevelt started it, in a secret deal with Japan in 1905, by agreeing to give Japan control over Korea and Manchuria. In exchange, Japan agreed not to interfere with the U.S. presence in the Philippines. Roosevelt’s decision set the stage for Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910, followed by 35 years of colonial rule designed to make Koreans into second-class Japanese.
Japan’s defeat in World War II meant Korea’s liberation. But no sooner had Japanese forces surrendered than the peninsula was split in half--under the influence of the Soviet Union in the North and the United States in the South.
Today--long after the Soviet Union is gone--two Germanys are one and overseas Vietnamese visit their homeland. Yet the Cold War continues on my peninsula, an armed camp with more than 1.5 million soldiers, including 37,000 Americans, ready to fight on a moment’s notice.
I went to church on the Sunday the war started, June 25, 1950, a warm, clear day in Seoul. I accompanied Grandmother and Mother, none of us aware that North Korea had made a surprise attack on the South hours before. After lunch, I went with Mother to a neighborhood dressmaker. My father, Joo-Han Kang, who taught English at Seoul National University, had left earlier that year on a Fulbright fellowship to study at the University of Michigan. He was due to return on July 10. We ordered new outfits to wear to the airport.
Monday, Mother heard it on the radio: The North Korean People’s Army was headed toward Seoul. We rushed to break the news to Grandmother, who sold secondhand American uniforms, sweaters, jackets and socks at the nearby East Gate Market. I wondered if I would ever see Father again.
Grandmother’s face turned ashen. “What shall we do? What shall we do?” she muttered. I had never seen her look so frail. She was a strong woman who had left her home, business and friends in North Korea to get away from Communists because she knew we would be persecuted for our Christianity. My great-grandfather, Bong-Ho, a Presbyterian elder, had established 17 churches. Risking her life, she had made six round trips across the 38th parallel, which separated the North from South, between 1945 and 1947 to bring her relatives to the South. I was 3 years old when I crossed the 38th parallel on my mother’s back in May 1946, with Grandmother guiding us.
By Wednesday night, June 28, we heard the rumbling of cannons from afar. Within days, Russian tanks arrived in the city center. Soon we saw North Korean People’s Army soldiers in our relatively quiet neighborhood in Shindang-dong.
Mother and Grandmother were shocked to discover so many Communists and sympathizers in the neighborhood. People we never suspected began to form block committees, whose duty was to keep track of people, their movements and activities. Going door to door, they drafted able-bodied adults for work assignments.
By now the two women felt it was a blessing that Father was in America. But they worried about my aunt’s husband, Chang-Kyu, and our next-door neighbor, Teacher Song, both in their 30s, refugees from the North. They decided that our home would be the best place to hide them.
Uncle Chang-Kyu’s hiding place was the space underneath the maru, or enclosed veranda, over which we kept a flower-patterned straw mat. Teacher Song’s refuge was the crawl space above the ceiling joists. Access to it was through a closet in Father’s study--impossible for an outsider to detect.
My assignment was to keep the household apprised of any suspicious people in the neighborhood. A code system was established to communicate with the men: A rapid series of taps with a laundry stick meant danger; two taps meant relax; four taps meant meal time. I felt proud when the men told me that their lives depended on me.
As the weeks dragged, it became clear I wouldn’t see Father for a long time. His letters stopped coming. As the North Korean People’s Army occupied Seoul, schools closed and the shiny silver American B-29s appeared overhead to attack their factories and supply depots. During air raids, I ran to a musty basement room, where we kept old quilts and pillows. Once, American pilots inadvertently bombed a school where refugees had gone for shelter. Many civilians died. Korean life was cheap.
In late July, three Communist students came to our home and demanded that they be given a room. With Father gone, we were in no position to refuse. Mother offered the room by the kitchen, which had been our maid’s room.
The students--all girls--invited me to their room and tried to indoctrinate me. They told me about the virtues of Communism and instructed me to address people as “comrade.” They talked about the “evil Americans--imperialist Americans--who were killing innocent civilians” and predicted a “people’s victory.”
“We will kill those American bastards like this,” one said, demonstrating with a bamboo spear. She looked ferocious.
The students taught me several revolutionary songs, too, including the “Song of General Kim Il-Sung.” They did a good job: I can still sing it by heart. In the evenings, they joined different neighborhood committees to recruit women for evening drills, rehearsing those motions of bayoneting Americans.
We lived in perpetual fear that the students or intruding North Korean soldiers would find the two men in hiding. One afternoon, when scouring the neighborhood, North Korean soldiers stopped and went through the entire house. They even went down to the bomb shelter and shook pillows. Another time, when soldiers showed up looking for food, Mother and I heard the ceiling creak when Teacher Song shifted his position in the crawl space.
As the summer wore on, our supply of rice dwindled. We were sharing it with the resident Communists, relatives and friends. Grandmother hid rice in small earthen jars in different places throughout the house to discourage the students from taking so much. She also put rice in small bags inside pillows, stuffed with rice chaff. By August, the only side dish we had with rice, mixed with barley to stretch it, was cabbage dipped in hot bean-paste sauce.
The pessimistic news from the war front spread by word of mouth. The first Americans were U.S. occupation troops from Japan, airlifted out of a soft life; they were no match for the well-trained North Korean soldiers, bred on hardship. By late summer, our side had lost all but the southern tip of the peninsula.
In September, we heard the encouraging news: The U.S. Marines were coming. In the distance, cannon fire rumbled. Grandmother and Mother said United Nations forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command would take over Seoul. Once that happened, the Allied forces would go all the way up north to the Yalu River and free the peninsula and we would be able to return to our home in the North.
And MacArthur’s audacious amphibious assault Sept. 15 on Inchon did work. Within two weeks, United Nations troops took over the capitol building and hoisted the blue U.N. flag over it. Elated Seoulites, waving and applauding, ran outside and greeted the soldiers arriving in their tanks and jeeps. Their triumphant entry into Seoul coincided with Chusok, the Harvest Moon festival, so Grandmother gathered the rice she had hidden and made rice cakes for a double celebration. Victory was at hand. Father could come home to the North directly from America. I thought I’d burst from the suspense.
South Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel and occupied two major cities--Hamhung, my mother’s hometown, and nearby Hungnam--while U.N. forces took Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and headed all the way north to the Yalu.
Suddenly, the situation reversed itself. Chinese “volunteer” soldiers joined the North Koreans in mid-October. The furious attacks and counterattacks resulted in one Allied retreat after another until the Chinese crossed the 38th parallel on Christmas Day. On New Year’s Day, 1951, the Communist offensive into the South began, and on Jan. 4, U.N. forces evacuated Seoul.
This time we had to leave. A war with North Korea was one thing, but fighting China was unthinkable. So in early January, when North Korean troops were about to overrun Seoul for the second time in less than seven months, we finally decided to depart.
I dwelt on the possessions I had to leave behind. I thought about my jewelry box, painted in yellow with a floral pattern with a mirror in front, looking like a miniature dresser. My mother had given it to me for Christmas that year. I hid it in the attic above Father’s study. Perhaps, when I returned to Seoul, I could retrieve it.
We could not travel together as a family because there was no available transportation for all of us. So Mother and I found passage on a truck to the train station in Taejon, 90 miles south of Seoul, where we would meet Teacher Song’s family. Whoever reached Taejon first was to wait at the station. There was room for only one adult on the truck, so I sat on my mother’s lap. Grandmother and my aunt went separately with another family and headed straight to Pusan. We agreed to look for each other in a refugee settlement center. My aunt’s husband and Teacher Song had been conscripted as laborers to help move ammunition.
From Taejon Station we took the last “freedom train” to Pusan. The only available spot was on the rooftop. A man tied a rope around my middle and threw the other end up to a man standing on the top of the train. He lifted me up as if he were drawing a bucket of water from a well. Mother climbed up a small staircase at the back of the coach with the help of the young man who had pulled me up.
For the second time in my life, we left everything behind. All our possessions consisted of an 80-pound sack of rice and a bundle containing kitchenware and a few pieces of clothing. We secured ourselves and our belongings to the train with a rope clear across the width of the rooftop.
The “freedom train” traveled through a freezing night. The winds from Siberia whipped through our layers of clothing, sewn out of olive-green U.S. Army blankets. We were afraid we would freeze to death. But the next evening, Mother and I were reunited with Grandmother at a packed refugee center in Pusan.
It was dinner time. The smell of people and food permeated the air. Makeshift partitions of sheets and rags separated the living quarters of different families. Children slept curled up like cats, but their parents dozed sitting up, leaning their weary backs against their bundles.
Grandmother, resourceful as ever, began peddling goods in a portable basket on the street within days after our arrival in Pusan.
South Korea’s second largest city was crowded and dirty. Street urchins in tattered clothes with gaunt faces and lice in their hair were everywhere. Sometimes they ran after American jeeps, hoping to get a piece of chewing gum or a candy bar. The American soldiers were not always kind, and sometimes shouted “goddamn” at them. The children repeated the word.
Because of a severe water shortage, we sometimes cooked food in salt water from the sea. We did our laundry with sewer water from a ditch that came out of a public bathhouse. One nightly routine was picking lice.
I attended a school for refugee children in pitched tents where straw mats served as doors and the playground was a muddy hill. During our music class we learned songs about the bravery of South Korean and United Nations soldiers. We sang for wounded soldiers in hospitals.
I would not be in Korea to see the signing of the armistice, which ended the fighting in July 1953.
Mother and I escaped to Japan on a small fishing boat on a moonlit night in October 1952 to be reunited with Father, who had come to Tokyo from New York to work for MacArthur’s United Nations Command.
Arrested and detained for illegally entering Japan, I became a jailbird at age 9. After considerable expense, a member of the Japanese parliament helped us get permanent residency, and we had a semblance of stability.
Attending an American school in Tokyo, I, like my father before me, fell in love with the English language, and I got the romantic notion of becoming a newspaperwoman in America. Days after my earning a master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, I was headed for Rochester, N.Y., to work as a reporter for the Democrat & Chronicle. In the summer of 1963, I was a curiosity. Whenever I went out on assignments, my interviewees wanted to interview me!
My parents immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1975 and settled in San Francisco. The City by the Bay, where Korean independence fighters raised money to try to free their homeland from Japan’s yoke, gave my parents their home away from home. Father died two years ago and Mother last year, their hope of going home unfulfilled.
Now it is up to me. I still have rusty keys to our ancestral home.