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[Herald Interview] Col. Kim: A war hero, a great humanitarian

Korean-American professor tells story of man who transcended ethnic rivalry


Chang Tae-han, professor at University of California, Riverside, recalled his last visit to Colonel Kim Young-oak, a highly decorated Korean-American war hero, when he was already in a coma at a hospital in Los Angeles six years ago.

“I told him that his biography, written in Korean, had just been published in Korea. He did not say anything but slightly moved his right index finger,” Chang said.

“There, I pledged myself that I will translate the book into English to have his story known to more people.” Two days later, Kim passed away, Chang added.

Chang has known Kim for almost 20 years. But the 55-year-old professor lamented that they didn’t have the chance to talk about his life in depth.

“I didn’t know that he was a true war hero until the book came out. He was so humble that you never get the idea that he was a war hero,” Chang told The Korea Herald. “He never comes in front. He was a volunteer always, never had a single title.”

In April, Chang published “Unsung Hero: The Story of Colonel Young Oak Kim,” an English translation of the Korean title “The Beautiful Hero Young Oak Kim,” which was written by award-winning journalist and long-time friend Han Woo-sung.
Col. Kim Young-oak
Col. Kim Young-oak

Two months later, Kim was listed as one of the 16 American War Heroes by U.S. portal MSN.com. He was the only veteran who made it to the list with a minority background.

The list also included such historic figures as George Washington, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, U.S. senators John McCain and John Kerry, were also featured on the list.

MSN praised him for “proving himself time and time again” to become the “first Asian-American to command a combat battalion in the U.S. military.”

“I was shocked. I felt really great,” said Chang who is one of the pioneers on ethnic studies in America and also a humanitarian activist.
Chang Tae-han, professor and director of Young Oak Kim Center for Korean-American Studies at University of California, Riverside, California (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Chang Tae-han, professor and director of Young Oak Kim Center for Korean-American Studies at University of California, Riverside, California (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“The news motivated us even more. We will translate the book in other languages such as Japanese, French and Italian to reach out even more,” he said. Chang is in Seoul to open a summer class at Korea University on the past, present and future of Korean-Americans.

Born in 1919 to Korean parents who left for the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and opportunities during the Japanese annexation, Col. Kim was the only Korean-American officer in a mostly Japanese unit in the Army.

Kim led the U.S. operation to liberate the Italian cities of Pisa and Rome from German forces. He looked after war orphans during the 1950-53 Korean War. After retiring from the army, he dedicated his life to disadvantaged people in the U.S.

“He was a war hero who transcended ethnic rivalry and a humanitarian who worked for children, battered women and Korean-Americans,” Chang said.

Kim helped found the Go For Broke Monument in L.A. that honors the U.S. military service of Japanese-Americans during WWII, as well as the Japanese American National Museum, the Korean Health, Education, Information and Research Center, and the Korean American Museum.

His life story itself may provide answers to many problems that Korean-Americans are facing now.

Korean-Americans have been suffering greatly from ethnic conflicts for years such as the L.A. Civil Unrest in 1992. The tension between black and Korean-American communities has increased since the early 1980s.

“It was like a time bomb, a kit of dynamite ready to explode,” Chang said.

“We believed in a one-race nation. All we thought about was making money,” he said.

Due to a lack of social education on multiculturalism, Korean-Americans didn’t know how to get along with other ethnic groups in America and how to give back to the society they belonged to.

Kim was different. The retired war veteran became a role model in the Korean-American community, helping people regardless of their color and background.

“He used to say ‘I am 100 percent Korean, 100 percent American. I can be both. Why do you have to limit yourself as 50 percent?’”


Korean-Americans today

Although the 1992 L.A. Civil Unrest was a painful incident for many Korean-Americans, it was a turning point for the community.

“We’ve got visibility and also started to think about the importance of having political empowerment.

“Nobody came to us when the black politicians went to their communities and the white to theirs,” said Chang who served as a field reporter and consultant for TV programs and newspapers during the L.A. riots.

Korean-Americans were totally abandoned. But this led them to develop the idea that they have to become a part of multiethnic, multinational society, he said.

The community today is experiencing transition of power from the first generation to the second generation of Korean-Americans. However, the power shift process seems not to be easy.

“The first generation Korean-Americans who accumulated wealth for all over the years still feel a strong bond to their motherland, while their sons and daughters, who received a better education have no interest at all. This, after all, is about an identity crisis,” he said.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 L.A. Civil Unrest next year, Chang will show the mainstream media how the Korean-American community has suffered because of it and where it is headed.

“Ten years ago, we were not ready but now we have to say what we want to say to them.” He added that the community will see the first Korean-American entering the major political stage soon “if we pull a lot of resources.” Irvine Mayor Kang Suk-hee, the first Korean-American elected to serve as mayor of U.S. city, has the most potential of becoming a Congressman, he said.

Chang emigrated to the U.S. in 1974 at 18 years old. He wanted to learn English by attending a year at a high school but couldn’t do so because of the age limit.

Instead, he joined the U.S. army for three years. The intensive ethnic rivalry between the white and black soldiers he witnessed at that time led him to study more on the issue.

He earned his B.A. in sociology and Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and M.A. in Asian American Studies at UCLA.

Chang is the author of several books including “Ethnic Peace in the American City” (1999) and “Following the Footsteps of Korean-Americans,” and “Who African Americans Are.” The professor also serves as director of Young Oak Kim Center for Korean-American Studies founded last year at UC Riverside.

The UCR center named for Col. Kim opened last year with a 3 billion won ($2.8 million) grant from the Overseas Koreans Foundation.

The center is one of only a few in the U.S. to focus its research on questions such as what it means to be a Korean-American in the 21st century, the history of Korean-Americans, the Korean diaspora in the U.S. and globally, and the role of Korean-Americans in the reunification of South and North Korea, Chang explained.

By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)
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