A woman’s sacrifices in a bloody centuryPerched at the top of a small hill in Gugi-dong in northwestern Seoul is Seungga Temple. With a history spanning more than 1,000 years, dating well back into the Silla dynasty, the temple has served as a meditation spot for the monks and visitors.
Inside the temple, day after day, an elderly woman performs a seemingly endless ritual of devotion, falling to her knees in front of a gold-plated seven-foot-tall statue of the Buddha. Finishing her 108th bow, Kim Sun-gon stands up and does a final half-bow, slightly bending at the waist to indicate that her obeisance is done for the day. At age 82, paying her respect to the Buddha is not an easy task anymore. Each bow, each fall to the floor, is felt in her aging frame.
At the end of her prayer, honoring the Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls, Ms. Kim says to herself quietly, “Let my brothers fare better in the next life to come.” As if she wants to reinforce her words with a gesture, she grabs the wooden chaplet around her neck and squeezes it.
The long years of her life seem to weigh on Ms. Kim’s back; her upper body bends slightly forward when she walks. Very slowly, balancing herself with carefully measured steps and with her arms slightly extended in front of her, she moves toward a wooden bench in front of the building. A mild breeze meandering through the temple plays with wisps of her curly graying hair before it moves on to ring a small bronze bell hanging from the rooftop of the building.
For the last 42 years, at the start of each month, Ms. Kim has made her way to the temple, staying about a week each time. The hill to the temple is steep ― it is a good hour’s walk even for young people. Fortunately, there is a bus that carries Ms. Kim up the hill. Once she reaches the temple, and every day she stays there, she performs her 108 bows to the Buddha.
If the old woman seems deeply pious, religion has been for her a source of needed strength. Her life has mirrored the turmoil and strife of the darkest periods in Korean history. The events that have carved a niche into her memory began even before her birth.
Ms. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Won-gu, was an officer in the army of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). He shared the resentment many Koreans feel for Japan, but as a military officer felt particularly humiliated that he could do nothing to prevent Korea’s loss of independence in 1910. He fell ill with depression and died at the age of 45 the very same year.
His son, Ms. Kim’s father, was a devoted seonbi, a Korean gentleman. Kim Gyeong-seob committed suicide at the age 33, when his daughter was only 10 years old, out of shame that his country had ceased to exist as an independent nation and despair over the two two decades spent under foreign rule. He hanged himself inside the family house in Icheon, Gyeonggi province.
Looking far into the mountains, trying to recall that morning when her father left the earth, Ms. Kim’s eyes begin to fill with tears. “I woke up in the morning to my mother’s screaming and weeping,” she recalls. “I was too young to understand. All I heard from people was that my father was an honorable man and that he had died for our country.”
More than nine years passed. Ms. Kim married Song Tae-hyun, a union arranged by the families. At last, life seemed to be normal.
On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began. It was a Sunday, and Ms. Kim’s younger brother, Kim Myeong-gon, a military cadet two weeks short of graduation, was at home with the family.
“Around 9 a.m., says Ms. Kim, “the radio started blaring an emergency message. They ordered all military personnel on leave back to the barracks.” She remembers her brother standing motionless, frozen in time, for a moment before he gathered himself and started to pack. “I gave him some salt, wheat gluten and steamed potatoes to take with him.”
At the time, a trolley line ran by her house to the Seongdong train station. At the trolley stop Ms. Kim wished her brother good luck. She never saw him again.
“There he was, standing before me, wearing his stylish army uniform. He just looked so handsome; he was shining.” Ms. Kim remembers, brushing away a tear. “I asked him when he would come back, but he just smiled.” After a pause, she adds, “Then right before he jumped on the trolley he looked me straight into the eyes and told me that we might not see each other again. When I asked him what he meant he only said, ‘Nothing.’ ”
In the official records of the Korean Army, 2d Lieutenant Kim Myeong-gon died on July 10, 1950, the 16th day of the war, in Gyeonggi province. Not until a couple of months later, however, was the letter delivered to his sister.
More than half a century later, Lim Jong-sik, 74, a classmate in that first graduating class of the Korea Military Academy, remembers Lieutenant Kim. “He was a very calm person,” Mr. Lim says. “At 175 centimeters Γ feet, 9 inches] he was considered tall at the time. He loved sports and was very good at them.”
Then, the story was repeated.
According to the Korean Army’s records, on Oct. 31, 1952, a second lieutenant fresh out of officer candidate school died in combat in Gangwon province. He was Kim Sae-gon, the remaining brother of Ms. Kim.
“I didn’t even see him before he left,” she says. “I thought he would go as a drill officer to Jeju Island. We all thought he would be safe there. But then I received a letter from him addressed from an army base in Gangwon province.”
About twice a month, she would get letters from her younger brother. Then the letters stopped coming. Ms. Kim knew that something had happened, but she didn’t want to believe it until she had confirmation. That came a month after her brother’s death.
After the war, Ms. Kim rebuilt the family house that had been destroyed by bombs. She opened a little shop with her husband, selling homemade ice cream and steamed bread.
Her husband went to work for the Korea National Railroad in 1954. Life quieted down, and Ms. Kim was able to spend time with her husband and her young family. But the country’s history continued to churn.
On April 19, 1960, as a result of Syngman Rhee’s fourth “election” as president, the peninsula experienced massive demonstrations led by high school and college students. Many people lost their lives. One of them was Ms. Kim’s eldest son, Song Young-geun, a junior at Whimoon High School. He was shot to death calling for democracy.
Ms. Kim continues to live where her family settled 57 years ago. A two-story building now stands on the grounds and Ms. Kim occupies a small room on the second floor. The first floor is rented out to small shops. Her husband died in 1993. Her surviving children, four sons, have married.
Religion seems to have given her a sanctuary where she finds inner peace. About her life, “I don’t know what it is,” she says. “Maybe I needed to pay recompense for deeds done in my former life. I just don’t know.”
Yet she is not bitter. “I have four sons who are all married. What more can you ask for?” Holding up nine fingers, she adds proudly, “I also have nine healthy grandchildren.” Perhaps in this generation her family’s fortunes will improve.
Still, Ms. Kim would like to see a token of appreciation for her family’s sacrifice. Although her two brothers’ names are inscribed at a monument at the National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong, Seoul, the bodies were not recovered, so there are no separate gravestones for them. Over the years, Ms. Kim has written and called army officials, trying to see if anything could be done about the problem. She has received no answer.
“It would be nice to have a grave where I just can sit down and talk to them,” says Ms. Kim. Again a tear starts. “For me they will always be those young bright lads. They were full of dreams. A whole life was waiting for them. You know?” Whispering, she adds, “It was never meant to be.” With her long days spent in the quiet, cool recesses of Seungga Temple, and with her long life behind her, there are still some things that she must seek to understand.
by Brian Lee