People: The Legend of Mr. Kim

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Mr. Kim used to have a sailboat, and go fishing. The bell is what he attached to his fishing pole to alert him that a fish was on the line. Photo by Gary Cross

By Gary Cross

What began for me as an act of charity became an enriching experience, a stimulating walk back in time. 

Any person passing this elderly man slowly making his way on foot to the local QFC in Shoreline wouldn’t guess that he’s an unusually rich man, rich in knowledge, rich in life experiences.

His name is Yung Gul Kim, known to us as Mr. Kim.

He was born in 1934 in Pyongyang, North Korea, of a strong Christian mother and a philandering father. 

At that time Korea was under Japanese control, and his life was pretty much the same as many other kids his age in the world, playing in the yard, or in the summer, swimming in the clear clean water of the Taedong river, which flows from the Rangrim mountains in the north, through Pyongyang, and out into Korea Bay at Namp’o.

Kim in the North Korean
Army as a boy
The first sign that his life might become more than ordinary was his selection to be class president over 80 students at the tender age of 7, in the first grade. Then came WWII, and with the defeat of Japan in 1945, North Korea came under Communist control. Yung Gul Kim, age 11, was now to be trained in the ways of the Communist Party.

His mother, Dong Ok Lim, owned land which she had inherited. It had been taken from her by the Communist party and given to the farm workers with whom she had shared profits from the land for many years. Because of her generosity and kindness to the peasants in years past, they kept her in food.

There was much oppression, and church pastors were sent to concentration camps. She was greatly fearful of the Communist influence upon her son, and was compelled to risk what was necessary to provide him with the opportunity a free country could offer. 

At age 13, young Mr. Kim soon found himself aboard a sampan, a Korean fishing boat, to be smuggled to South Korea under the guardianship of his uncle.

The boat was apprehended by North Korean security forces, but the experience and sheer boldness of its trusted pilot facilitated their escape to the safety of South Korea.

…………But this is not nearly the end of the story.

June 28, 1950, North Korea invades South Korea, and takes the city of Seoul. Yes, young Mr. Yung Kim was there. Then came the day he was walking down an alley going about the business of living. 

What? What were the odds….? Rounding a corner, there standing in front of him was a former fellow classmate, entering from another street. That classmate had become a North Korean soldier, as was required. So now, after making a clean break to South Korea, was it all over? Would he be captured? 

Kim as a university 
student at Cal Berkeley
Thinking quickly, Yung Gul Kim said loudly, “hey comrade my friend!” “Tovarishch!” That’s Russian for comrade. “Good to see you; what group are you in? How was your battle?” The guy was dense enough to believe in his sincerity. He asks about some mutual friends, how they were doing, and where the comrade was stationed. 

The comrade told him in detail, and Mr Kim assured him he would come and pay a visit. After cordial goodbyes, and after he was out of eyesight, he ran and ran, never looking back. In Korea, an incident like this is known as “a meeting on a one log bridge”.

September, 1950. McArthur and the UN forces made a surprise attack at the port of Inchon, near Seoul. Mr Kim was there, taking cover with his uncle and other family members wherever they could. There were 16 inch shells coming from the ships 20 miles away, as well as bomber groups. 

Then there was a substantial period of quiet when the Seoul citizens emerged to see the carnage and death. Many were hungry. As the US Marines moved through to clear the city, Kim observed the hungry children moving in behind them, looking for half-eaten C-rations to fill their stomachs.

Kim and Elaine with their first 
child, a boy named Lynn.

But Yung Gul Kim gratefully survived to see the end of the war, largely because of the support of his uncle. When Kim was 19 years old, his uncle directed him to apply for a special program that was to be his ticket to the United States. There was a series of three difficult exams, and Yung Gul, having been a top student, was one of 20 students chosen out of 120 applicants.

Affluent individuals in California, mostly wives of 1 and 2 star Generals, provided full funding for these 20 to come and study at UC Berkeley. In exchange, Mr Kim would be their “houseboy” for one year. It was tough, but a worthwhile endeavor.

Mr Kim studied architecture at Berkeley, and later at the University of Oregon. There he had become quite ill from all the hard work and stress. Tending to him at the University infirmary was an attractive, younger, nurse named Elaine. 

She was described as “extremely kind, understanding, and very gentle.” After a while, he thought about asking her out, but didn’t have the nerve to invite her on a “formal kind of date.”

He was taking English Literature at the time, so he asked her to help him get through the class. It worked! He says he doesn’t remember where they went on their first “real” date, but no matter. He was 26, she was 19 when they got married. 

Mr. Kim in his garage workshop
Photo by Gary Cross

Four children and many grandchildren later, they came to settle and retire in Shoreline, where they reside today.


Unknown January 1, 2021 at 4:06 PM  

What a wonderful writing about Yung Gul Kim. So much I did not know. Such an interesting life. The Lord was watching over his foot steps to get out of South Korea and eventually meet Elaine. It is a legacy they leave for their children. Elaine and I have been BBF for decades and I love them both.

Garrick Pang January 12, 2021 at 8:42 PM  

I attended Seattle Pacific University with their daughter Jeanne and recently had the privilege of meeting and spending some time with this beautiful family. They are a kind and truly beautiful family. I didn't know much about Mr. Kim's story before reading this article. So glad to learn about some of the experiences that have shaped him and made him who he is. Blessings to the Kim family!

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