Busan, South Korea. This scenic port city was the only major city that was spared during the Korean War of 1950. Those fleeing from the war drifted south and found sanctuary in Busan and nearby islands. After Seoul was overrun, the central government transferred to this little corner in the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Most young people today know Busan (or Pusan) only as the site of a world-famous International Film Festival, forgetting that it was here that tens of thousands of Korean orphans were dumped during the war.
In the nearby island of Geojedo, about 3 hours from Busan, lives a 78-yearold legendary woman known as Kim Im Soon. Koreans admire her for her toughness, singleness of purpose, and courage. In the Christian community of which she is a member, she is referred to as the Korean Mother Teresa.
Kim Im Soon was a young wife, heavy with baby when the war erupted. She was then visiting her parents in a nearby town. It was too late to return to Seoul. Her father-in-law, a Protestant pastor and a prominent theologian, had been taken by the communists and brought to North Korea. She assumed that the same fate had befallen her husband. She never saw him again. A few months later, she gave birth to her daughter, and together they made their home in Geojedo. A graduate of the prestigious Ewha Woman’s University, she began a teaching career in the island.
But the war was not over. Refugees continued to stream into Busan. One day Kim bumped into a former professor at Ewha who was then working in the social welfare department in Busan. He told her of seven abandoned infants in his office with nowhere to live, and begged her to take them home until they could be placed with foster families. She looked at the orphans and then at her own child and at once she knew in her heart that these were her children too.
Kim raised her daughter and the seven orphans in a makeshift tent that quickly became known as an orphanage. Soon, more babies were being left outside her tent. Milk was her number one problem. American soldiers gave her skimmed milk but the supply was never enough and it did not come regularly. Not one to be easily discouraged, she nursed the younger infants with her own milk, and extracted soymilk from beans to feed the others. Four years later, a newly-widowed sister, Mal Soon, joined her in Geojedo, and it was then that Kim decided to completely dedicate her life to the task of caring for abandoned children.
Thus was born the center called Ai Kwang Won (Garden of Love and Light). A devout Christian, Mrs. Kim received enormous help from members of her Protestant congregation and from her former classmates at Ewha. She cleared a rented patch of land on a hillside overlooking Geoje Bay, and there she built what was to be the first of a complex of buildings for her expanding family of orphaned children. From contributions sent by her growing legion of supporters, she added a technical school for older orphans who needed to learn basic livelihood skills. By 1978, Mrs. Kim was taking care of 750 children. Not once did she turn away any child left at her door. She sought help wherever she could find it, and most of the time she got it.
Her daughter, Woo Joong, recalls that she grew up in Ai Kwang Won believing she too was an orphan. She received the same treatment as the other kids in the center. She and the seven original orphans grew up like real siblings. Her mother made sure they would all complete their education, and establish families of their own. Meanwhile, Korea’s economy was growing at a phenomenal rate in the 1970s. Most of Mrs. Kim’s orphans had graduated and found work in the country’s booming economy. Less and less orphans were being put in her care, but an increasing number of infants born with all kinds of handicaps and defects were being left at her door. The needs of these special children were more difficult but she was undaunted. She decided it was time to convert Ai Kwang Won from an orphanage into a home and school for a new set of abandoned children – the severely physically handicapped and mentally retarded.
She was determined to give to these kids the best therapy and rehabilitation available. She built a special home for them, and called it the Dandelion House. Like wild dandelions, handicapped children, she said, were being treated by society as weeds to be pulled because they had no place in a well-ordered garden. Mrs. Kim wanted her children to be beautiful resilient weeds that would thrive in all kinds of weather. She saw beauty in the innocent eyes and faces of her wards, where others only saw aberration.
I met Mrs. Kim the other day and sat beside her at a Ramon Magsaysay Foundation conference. Later, with the other participants, I visited Ai Kwang Won. Tears welled in my eyes as I gazed at the loving way the center’s volunteers and staff caressed the broken wings of their little angels. I asked Mrs. Kim how and where she drew the energy that made all this possible. Her answer was terse, but it said it all: “Love is patient.”
In 1989, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation recognized Mrs.. Kim’s greatness of spirit by giving her the award for Community Leadership. But she had built more than a community. Mrs. Kim rescued a whole generation, and built a nation. She continues to do so not as an act of charity, but out of love for her country and all its children. This is patriotism at its best.
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