The Simon Kim family—Janice, Joshua, Casey, Diane, and Simon.
For years, I knew him only as the humble, soft spoken, hard working Asian-American fellow who repaired my boots in Norman. Observing the traffic in and out of his Norman Boot & Shoe Repair shop on Main Street, it grew clear that much of the rest of the town and surrounding area were also his customers.
Only recently, at about the same time that I came to the Korean War era (1950-1953) of Vol. 2 of The Oklahomans: The Story of Oklahoma and Its People, which I am currently writing, did I think to inquire where he originally came from. South Korea. His parents were South Korean natives and grew up there. Later, however, they moved to North Korea with their eldest child Peggy for his father’s work. They lived there for many years, until Korean War storm clouds rolled in. What a story did he have to tell, once I pulled it out of him.
Miyung Duk Kim—Simon Kim here in America—was born in 1961 in Seoul, South Korea. His parents and older siblings, including sister Peggy, however, came there from Hamhung, the second largest city in North Korea, a few miles inland from the Sea of Japan. Kwan Young Kim, Simon’s father, was an expert watch repairman by trade. For years, he worked in a watch repair business run by the Japanese, who brutally occupied and enslaved all of Korea from 1910 until their defeat at the end of World War 2 in 1945.
Mr. & Mrs. Kwan Young Kim, who escaped North Korea, built a family in South Korea, immigrated to America, were married for seventy-nine years, and died one month apart.
Kwan’s talent and diligence gradually carried him to the top of the watch repair company’s twelve-person technical staff. He reported directly to the Japanese owner/overseer. When that man left at the time of the Japanese surrender, Kwan was able to gain ownership of the company.
The departure of the Empire of the Rising Sun brought another colossal evil to Hamhung and North Korea—Communism. Josef Stalin’s Soviet Russia empire installed a Communist puppet government over the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of the present North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Un, headed it. The United States championed a United Nations-backed democratic regime in the southern half.
The U.S.S.R. (Soviet Russia) installs Kim Il-Sung as its puppet ruler of North Korea in Pyongyang in 1947.
Christianity Amidst Communism
Simon recalled the devout Christian beliefs that his father held from childhood:
When he was as young as fifteen or sixteen years old, he went to church every day, 5 or 6 o’clock services in the morning. He had to walk across two mountains to reach it. He’s really really Christian. He became an elder in his church when he was forty, and he was an elder until he died, both in Korea and in America. My whole family became Christian.
But according to Simon, in late 1940s and early 1950s North Korea, where his parents and older siblings by then lived, Christians had “lots of trouble with Communists. There was no religion allowed in North Korea. If you believe in Jesus—they kill you right away!”
The U.S. 1st Marine Division holds the line in minus-20 to minus-35 degree temperatures against a tidal wave of Communist Chinese troops high above the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea, December, 1950.
North Korean Christians’ lives depended on having “very quiet, secret services—in their houses.”
Kwan watched numerous friends and other people die brutal deaths at the hands of the Communists. He told Simon that most of the surviving Christians in the entire nation of North Korea eventually fled south.
“The Communists would sharpen long bamboo sticks into poles (like pikes) and run Christians through with them,” Simon said. “The Communists were very bad, and my father saw them do a lot of bad things, kill a lot of people, innocent people, people he knew.”
A United States Marine fights through the massed Red Chinese army amidst a blizzard howling straight down from Siberia.
The area around Hamhung witnessed some of the most desperate fighting of the Korean War—indeed, of the entire Cold War. In the early months of the war, Russian and Chinese-supplied North Korea nearly drove United Nations forces—90% of which were American—off the Korean peninsula and into the sea. Then U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, renowned Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific during World War 2, unleashed his famous ambush at Inchon behind the Communist lines. This audacious mass amphibious assault in the heart of Communist-held territory, near the captured South Korean capital of Seoul, succeeded in part because the Soviets, Chinese, and North Koreans considered it impossible to accomplish due to the terrain, violent tides, terrible navigation and landing straits, and proximity of enormous Red military forces.
But MacArthur and his boys did it, led by the 1st Marine Division. They then fought their way inland and liberated that great city of Seoul. All this triggered a rout of the North Koreans by the mostly-American U.N. forces that nearly drove them out of the peninsula and into China. At that point, Mao Zedong, the mass murdering leader of Communist China, unleashed a titanic Red Chinese army on the Allies. Because U.S. President Harry Truman refused MacArthur’s pleas to take whatever steps necessary to destroy that army, fearing such actions would trigger World War 3, the American and United Nations forces were limited in their fighting options and pushed back to a line roughly along the 38th latitudinal parallel north, which to this day divides North and South Korea. For two and a half years, the Americans held that line, repelling repeated Communist attempts to conquer South Korea, and thus saving that nation.
Truman fired MacArthur over their disagreement. What is the opinion of South Koreans of Mac? “He is a hero,” Simon Kim says simply.
General Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, who was raised on U.S. Army outposts in the Old West.
The “Frozen Chosin” carved their place into the annals of American history during the afore-mentioned 1st Marine Division’s legendary November-December 1950 campaign around the enormous Chosin Reservoir near the Kims’ home of Hamhung. According to General S. L. A. Marshall, one of America’s greatest military historians, “The fighting at the Chosin Reservoir was the most violent small unit fighting in the history of American warfare.”
Mao unleashed his entire, elite twelve-division 9th Army of 120,000 battle-hardened soldiers against the “Old Breed” 1st, with a simple directive: destroy it. He envisioned a historic military and propaganda victory by vanquishing the cream of American fighting men. The Red Chinese outnumbered the Marines and supporting U.S. Army, South Korean, and British Troops 4-1. They surrounded them in “friendly territory” for the Communists in some of the most bitterly cold weather of any American military campaign ever. For seventeen straight days of hell, with little or no food, battling freezing and frostbite, frozen canteens, blood plasma and morphine containers, and ground that required explosives just to dig foxholes, in temperatures ranging from minus-20 to minus-35 degrees below zero, the Marines fought their way through endless waves of enemy soldiers toward a Naval rescue on the Sea of Japan, just south of Hamhung. While more than half their entire force fell, the Americans destroyed six Chinese divisions, knocked nearly half of Mao’s entire army in Korea out of the war until the following spring, and decisively defeated his all-out attempt to destroy them. Had he succeeded, South Korea might well have been lost to the Communists. Captured Chinese intelligence revealed that Mao and his leadership concluded they could not subdue the Marines even if they threw every soldier in China against them. Fourteen Marines won the Medal of Honor, nearly one per day during the Battle of Chosin.
With this savage war, which slaughtered nearly three million people, include nearly two million Korean civilians, raging around Hamhung, and the Communists continuing to terrorize Christians, Kwan decided on a gamble of life-threatening peril: try and take his wife and five-year-old daughter Peggy back to his native South Korea. He had collected valuable watches and money through the years. He hid all of these in a large parka that his daughter Peggy wore as the family traveled south through Communist North Korea amidst the carnage of the twentieth-century’s worst “forgotten war.”
“My father knew that the Communists searched adults, but not children,” Simon said.
The Kims survived this harrowing trek and settled in the South Korean city of Cheongju, and later, Seoul. Kwan eventually continued his career as an expert watchman with a large South Korean company. He and Mrs. Kim raised eight children—three boys and five daughters, including “Parka” Peggy.
U.S. Marines bury their dead, December, 1950, in Hamhung, North Korea, where the Kwan Kim family lived for many years.
Kwan and his wife legally immigrated to America in 1975, settling in the growing Korean community of Los Angeles. Elderly and speaking no English, he arose by 5 a.m. every morning to work all day collecting aluminum and other scrap metal from any place he could find it, including trash cans, in order to earn income. Simon remained in Seoul with his younger siblings until legally joining his family in LA in 1982. There, he attended and graduated from El Camino College while working three part time jobs.
He met his Korean wife, Mija, or Janice, through family and friends during a ski trip to California’s Big Bear Mountain. Her family had moved to Oklahoma when she was in junior high. She attended OU. Simon and Janice hit it off immediately and after the ski trip, corresponded in writing. They eventually married, and Janice joined Simon in LA. He worked there for several more years, then for a few years in Houston, and again in LA. He owned beauty supply stores and grocery markets, and was a beef jerky wholesaler.
Janice, Diane, Simon, and Joshua Kim.
In 1999, Simon and Janice moved to Norman. He bought the Norman Boot and Shoe Repair Shop from an older Korean immigrant, who trained him in the new trade for one month, then retired. “But I’m a very fast learner, because my father, he was a technician of the watch,” Simon said. “I think I got a gene, I got DNA from him. As soon as I look at something, I know how to do it.” Another employee of the store worked for two or three more months and provided Simon some additional training before leaving him on his own.
In the nearly twenty years since, Simon Kim has built a reputation from south Oklahoma City to Red River as the man to go to for boot, shoe, and leather repair. He and his wife have raised two daughters and have a fifth-grade son Joshua, an avid reader and student of history. Daughters Casey and Diane are both OU grads. Casey is an OKC photographer and Diane, who earned both bachelors and masters degrees in the field, is a civil engineer.
Norman Boot & Shoe Repair, owned by Korean immigrant and American citizen Simon Kim since 1999.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s, Hamhung, that large North Korean city from which Kwan led the Kim family’s death-defying escape, witnessed the only significant troop revolt against the totalitarian Communist government. It was also ground zero of the 1994-2000 North Korean famine, one of the worst in history. One hundred thousand people, perhaps more, starved to death in Hamhung. The physical growth of half the city’s surviving children was stunted. An American journalist reported that the city’s surrounding cemeteries are so vast they cover about the same amount of space as Hamhung itself.
Simon Kim, meanwhile, recalls with thanksgiving the sacrifice made by so many of America’s young men, who gave up their own futures so that the suffering people of Korea might have one of their own. More than 36,000 American troops died, more than 100,000 suffered wounds, 5,000 went missing, and an undetermined number returned to towns and cities across the U.S. with psychological scars. If not for these men, South Korea would never have evolved from a poor, unsanitary, underdeveloped, long subjugated land, to the prosperous juggernaut from which arose Samsung, Hyundai, and numerous other industrial giants, a vibrant, free society, and one of the most Christian nations on earth. At the same time, its neighbor to the north, the totalitarian hermit kingdom of North Korea whom MacArthur was not allowed to save, including Hamhung, endures in poverty, fear, scarcity, periodic starvation, godless emptiness, and political terror.
Diane and Casey Kim as Diane receives her masters degree in civil engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder. Both ladies earned their bachelors degrees from the University of Oklahoma.
“I’m really happy with my life in America, that I came here and stayed,” concludes Simon Kim, a faithful member of Life.Church in Moore, pastored by Oklahoma native Joey Armstrong. “I met my wife here, my children grew up here and graduated from OU and are working. Thank God! And thank God I’m a Christian.”
Our visit concluded with his remembrance of his parents’ seventieth wedding anniversary celebration in Los Angeles: “Nearly sixty of their Korean-American children, grandchildren, and other relatives attended. A Korean newspaper published a large illustrated story.”
Simon’s mother, Soon Yae Choi Kim, lived seven more years. She died after seventy-seven-years of marriage to Kwan. Kwan Young Kim—pilgrim, patriarch, man of courage, American—died one month later.