My mother was born in 1945 near Yongbyon.
That would the Yongbyon best known today for its illegal plutonium enrichment nuclear program.
That would be the nuclear program in present-day North Korea.
Of course, back then “North Korea” as we understand it today didn’t exist. In fact, it’s still not entirely clear what Korea was in those first few months after the Japanese surrender ending WWII, before the Allied negotiations over what to do about the former colony devolved into “we’ll take this half, you take that half.”
Anyway, what is clear is that she was born in that half.
About a year later or so her father, then a schoolteacher, found it necessary to get himself out the north after making some ill-advised anti-communist statements in class.
I say himself because he didn’t bother bringing his wife and child; he fled alone and left it up to them to follow him south at a later time.
Editorial note: It’s unclear whether the communists were so hot on his heels that he couldn’t go for his wife and child, or that he simply forgot them in his panic.
In his defense, his paranoia was justified at least once. At one point in his life he was captured by the communists and sent on a march back north to be executed, only escaping due to illness and a sympathetic doctor – and even then only 2 of his 6 fellow escapees survived.
On the other hand, he has a history of anxiety, impulsiveness, abuse and selfishness, and has never once to my knowledge demonstrated the ability to even remember the welfare of his wife and children – let alone place theirs above his own – during times of stress.
They did so some time later, finding themselves at some point on some boat going down a river in the middle of the night. My grandmother spent the whole ride in fear that they would be caught if my infant mother cried out.
Notwithstanding my grandfather’s abandonment, my grandmother didn’t have make the escape on her own. She left with her two mothers.
My grandmother was born to a man whose first wife couldn’t bear him any children. So his family arranged him to marry another woman, who wasn’t notified about the first wife. That second wife had 3 children, my grandmother being the youngest.
Not surprisingly my grandmother’s status as the child of a second wife carried no small social stigma which my grandfather, whom she married at the age of 17, would often use as leverage to denigrate her over the years.
What was surprising was that the two wives did in fact get along quite well. Their shared husband (my great-grandfather) owned a mine – presumably heavily leveraged – so upon his death he left behind a house and a debt, both sizable. The wives pulled together to run a boarding house out of the house and actually managed to pay off all his debts.
Hence when my grandmother fled to the south, she came with both women of her mothers. They waited for some indeterminate time in a refugee camp rife with hunger and disease while my grandfather worked his way from camp to camp, looking for his wife and child.
He found them on the day that my grandmother’s stepmother, whom she called “older mother”, died of tuberculosis.
My mother only found out all of this from my grandmother after my grandfather passed away in 2010 at the age 90.
My grandfather was a force of nature: loud, unpredictable, overpowering, and most of all violent. That violence dissipated in the last few decades of his life, but not well into retirement – my sister recalls once in Korea seeing him “beat the crap out of 할머니 [grandma].” Meanwhile, everything in the vicinity of that violence was distorted in response to the need to evade or survive its outbursts.
My mother’s own response: to harden her determination into a tempered steel. In the next post I’ll introduce the missionary who shaped that steel into a fine point and gave it direction.