For people who know my mother, they know she is an amazing trailblazer who established a center for Korean immigrants — and is also a somewhat difficult woman. The two probably go hand in hand, like where the fresh water of a river meets the saline of the sea, impossible to separate out which is which, the currents and proportions are always shifting.
With the end of World War II in 1945, the Korea she was living in was liberated as a colony of Japan. Though Korea was naturally supposed to become “free and independent,” the U.S.partitioned Korea at the 38th parallel and itself occupied theSouth. My mother was fourteen and living in what was nominally North Korea, and a few months later fled to the south. But not of her own choice: she was sent by her mother to accompany a widowed aunt. After trekking across a mountain, in the middle of the night, they dashed across the heavily fortified border, each with a baby on their backs, and somehow managed not to get shot.
A refugee in Seoul, my mother had barely gotten her bearings as a freshman at the prestigious Ewha College when she, like the rest of the city, heard the noise of the guns and tanks descending from the North, and the Korean War began. She would never graduate from Ewha.
The U.S. Eighth Army recruited students from Ewha to prepare medicine packets for troops. This led to various flukes of fate and contact that brought her to America, where she married my father, another North Korean, and made a new family. There were more hardships to come.
I condense these early years to give you an outline of who my mother is and what she’d been thru leading up to 2009, when I made a decision — that many said was inadvisable — to take her along on an academic trip bringing college students to North Korea, where I had been invited as faculty advisor.
Two months before we depart, North Korea launches a long-range ballistic missile as both test and provocation. This saber-rattling unnerves Jim, the other faculty leader, who drops out, as do a number of student participants. The State Department correspondingly warns us that travel to North Korea may be dangerous and advises against it. We are down to a handful of participants.