A life from exile to repatriationChoi Yun-sin, 94, is the daughter-in-law of Park Eun-sik (1859-1925), a historian and independence movement activist who also served as the second president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai in 1925.
Celebrating the 93rd anniversary of the March 1st Movement, the Korean resistance against Japanese colonization in 1919, the JoongAng Sunday interviewed Choi on Feb. 19 and 22 at her house in Bangbae-dong, Seocho District, south Seoul. She recounted her hardships living in Shanghai, facing discrimination and the numerous independence activists she encountered over the years.
Choi moved to Shanghai at the age of four and spent the next 25 years there. Her father, Choi Jung-ho, was an independence activist who had been exiled to Shanghai. He eventually passed away at the age of 43 in 1934. Choi Yun-sin’s mother raised her four children, earning money by delivering newspapers, selling rice cakes and working at a noodle shop.
“It was normal to skip meals, and we went to school crying because of hunger,” recalled Choi.
In order to make money for her father’s medicine, she learned French embroidery in elementary school. “After sewing for a week, I received 1 won. From that, we could get the medicine, but if I cried because I couldn’t go to school, my father felt very disheartened.” At that time, 1 won was a considerable amount of money.
Until 1930, when Choi was 12, she attended Insung School, also known as the Shanghai Korean School, which was established in China for Koreans in 1916.
She took her classes in a two-story house rented by the school. The first floor was used for gym class while the second floor was comprised of classrooms. Choi said that at the school she learned Korean history, Chinese characters, arithmetic and natural sciences. Because there were not enough classrooms, a curtain was drawn in the middle of the room to divide the grade levels. Chinese was not taught, according to Choi.
“I of course didn’t know any Japanese. Just one word. Bakayaro,” she said with laughter, relaying her knowledge of one Japanese swear word that means “idiot.”
“All the teachers were not paid a salary. The teachers should have been hungry too, but they taught with great zeal.”
Many of her expatriated teachers were independence movement activists and became renowned leaders after liberation.
“Kim Tu-bong was my Korean-language teacher. He went to North Korea with my teacher Kim Won-bong, and they were all swept away by Kim Il Sung,” Choi said.
Kim Tu-bong (1886-1957) is the former chairman of the Workers’ Party of North Korea and the first head of state of North Korea from 1948 to 1957. Kim Won-bong (1989-1958) was a Korean nationalist and North Korean statesman.
Choi enrolled in a French Catholic school for secondary education.
“It was a famous school, so the wealthy were tremendously wealthy. Tuition was free for students who came from poor families.
“The dormitory was free as well, but I thought my pajamas and underclothes were so shabby that it would be embarrassing so I commuted from home. My house was near Pudong [eastern Shanghai] and walking to school took one hour and a half. If I skipped breakfast, I was completely exhausted when I got to school.
“Out of the subjects I learned there, I hated Chinese history the most. In the textbook it said ‘Koreans lost their country to the Japanese.’ When I argued with the Chinese students, they teased me, calling me manggukno [slave to the invaders of a country that has collapsed],” she said. “The anguish of not having a country was astounding. It was more frustrating that I had no words to respond back with.”
Choi married Park Si-chang (1903-1986), former chairman of the Korea Liberation Association, at the age of 19. The Korea Liberation Association was founded in 1965 in commemoration of the March 1st Movement in 1919, which was a catalyst to setting up the provisional government in Shanghai.
Park was an officer in the Chinese army and later joined the national liberation corps. With Korean independence in 1945, Park participated in the establishment of the national armed forces and in 1959 was discharged as an army major general.
One of Choi’s sons, Park Yu-jong, 72, lives in the United States. His 36-year-old daughter, Choi’s granddaughter, Jennifer Park Stout, is the U.S. Department of States’ deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau in the Obama administration.
By Choi Jeong-dong [firstname.lastname@example.org]