KIM IM SOON was born in the town of
Sangjoo in Kyung Nam Province, South-Central Korea, on 20 March 1925 to
upper-class parents. Kim Dong Kyu and his wife Lee Gui Duk (in Korea married
women keep their family names), having five children already, entrusted
their new daughter to a childless relative, Yoon Sook Ha, the widow of Kim's
brother. Yoon raised IM SOON and her second-elder brother as her own
daughter and son. Indeed, IM SOON was unaware of the identity of her real
parents—whom she had been taught to call Aunt and Uncle—until she was
fourteen years old. Yoon and her adopted children occupied a house in the
larger family compound, however, so the children grew up in constant
proximity to their real parents and siblings.
The whole family was passionately patriotic. In 1910 Japan had annexed
Korea, bringing to an end the Yi dynasty that had reigned for over five
hundred years, a dynasty that generations of the Kim family had served—in
the Confucian tradition—as scholar-officials. IM SOON’s father was such a
man and at the time of the Japanese occupation he fled with his family to
Manchuria where he joined other patriots eager to overthrow the intruders.
His younger brother, the husband of Yoon, attended a school for Korean
freedom fighters there and died while still in exile.
Most of Kim Dong Kyu's children were, in fact, born in Manchuria, but he had
returned to Sangjoo County and entered trade by the time of IM SOON’s
arrival. Although rarely spoken of, the feelings of pride in Korea and
loathing for the Japanese powerfully influenced the family. IM SOON believed
that her father had died a martyr in Manchuria, and Yoon occasionally spoke
of her own longings to be a Korean revolutionary. The child therefore made
Korea's cause her own. In grade four, having heard how a member of the
anti-Japanese underground was caught while buying meat at the marketplace,
she began disciplining herself for tasks ahead by becoming a vegetarian!
(The habit became ingrained and she continues to eat a primarily vegetarian
Materially, the family was well-off; Kim Dong Kyu prospered as a wholesale
merchant dealing in sea products. In the family compound most of the really
arduous tasks were performed by servants, although by choice Yoon did the
cooking. In accordance with the family's strong sense of social class, IM
SOON and her brothers and sisters were not permitted to mix with other
children after school. The young girl thus found consolation in her pet dog,
Patoogie (Spot), whom she taught to carry requests to a neighborhood
shopkeeper, and whose death at the ends of an overzealous rabies patrol
exposed her early in life to the harsh reality of loss.
Although Japanese soldiers were not ordinarily stationed in Sangjoo, the
occupation was present in the form of policemen and other functionaries,
including teachers. Indeed, KIM’s formal education was thoroughly Japanese:
most of her teachers were Japanese nationals and even at Sang San Elementary
School instruction was carried out the conqueror's language. Korean was not
allowed to be spoken and history lessons emphasized the glories of Japan.
Only her instructor Chinese characters, a Korean, managed to convey to the
students something of Korea's pride and past. But for the most part, it was
at night with Yoon that KIM learned about her own culture and language. She
did discover, however, that some individual Japanese could be sympathetic.
Her high school principal, Mr. Miahara, was such a person. "A literary man,"
she recalls, "he was very, very warm and . . . understood people."
By the time KIM attended high school, her father's business had grown and
the family had moved to Kimchun, some thirty-two kilometers from Sangjoo.
KIM and her brother lived with Yoon in a house provided by her father,
although not in the same compound. All but a few of the students in the high
school were Japanese, as were all the teachers. KIM was a bright student
but, even though she excelled, could never advance beyond the rank of
"number two." Since the "number one" student led her fellow pupils in public
exercises, it was unthinkable that she not be Japanese.
KIM enjoyed the arts but took as many classes as she could in home economics
in order to prepare herself to become an "agricultural community leader."
She could not admit that her real goal was to become a revolutionary.
Preparing for the challenges she saw ahead, she also trained herself to go
without lunch and to survive with little sleep.
KIM intended to serve the cause of the one-day-to-be Korean nation, not only
as a revolutionary, a community leader, and educationist, but so also as a
Christian. The latter was due to Yoon Sook Ha's influence. Yoon was a
literate woman and a voracious reader. She read the Christian Bible for the
first time when KIM was four or five years old and was intrigued by its
message but was unable to explore the new religion because of the family's
strong Confucian beliefs. Instead she began secretly sending KIM to a local
Christian Sunday School. KIM attended happily for two years before their
little conspiracy was uncovered, and she still remembers the family
confrontation and its unexpected outcome.
Returning from the church on a rainy Sunday morning with Yoon, who had come
to fetch her, they were intercepted by Kim Dong Kyu. "Where are you coming
from on this rainy day?" he asked. KIM listened as Yoon confessed, fearing
that this would bring an end to her Sunday outings and Bible reading. But
her father replied, "Well, you may go to Sunday School, and when you grow up
you can even become a missionary!" But in granting his permission for KIM to
become a Christian, he also made it clear that she was not to try and
convert her brothers and sisters—in any case, a daunting ambition for a
seven-year-old. In time, however, all of KIM’s siblings followed her into
the Christian church.
After graduating from high school in 1944, KIM took up a post teaching third
grade at Hosunam Elementary School, in the town of Moon Kyung-kun where she
lodged with another aunt. She was obliged to instruct the children through
the medium of Japanese, of course, but she managed to assert a modicum of
independence by leading her pupils in daily morning prayers, an act
permitted by the school's elderly principal. It was a provocative action
just the same, especially in the context of wartime. The Japanese police
took note and placed her under light surveillance.
Despite the great hopes she harbored for Korea's independence, KIM never
actually joined a secret revolutionary group. And by the time she reached
age twenty, the war had ended and liberation had come.
Sudden independence, after decades of persecution and foreign control, left
Koreans overjoyed but overwhelmed and confused. KIM stayed clear of the
rancorous debates and power struggles that erupted between adherents of the
Left and the Right and devoted herself to acquiring a university education.
Ewha Woman's University, a Christian institution, was famous in Korea and
KIM longed to go there, but she thought her family would disapprove. Ewha
was in Seoul, and single girls of her age were generally not permitted to
live alone in a big city. Besides, it was now time for a girl of her social
station to be married. Although it was not discussed openly, KIM knew that
her biological parents were beginning to seek an appropriate husband for
her. She therefore kept her intentions secret, even from Yoon.
While telling everyone she was going to Seoul for a short teacher's training
course, KIM took Ewha's entrance examination and was accepted. Then came the
problem of tuition. KIM went home, closeted herself in her room, and fasted
for three days. Finally, Yoon asked her what the matter was. "Mother," she
blurted out, "I have been accepted at Ewha Woman's University and I need the
tuition and I want to go to that school badly." Weeping with pride, Yoon
embraced her. Soon thereafter she and KIM’s sisters and brothers persuaded
her father to finance her education.
At Ewha KIM was surrounded by other bright young women of high ambition and
by women teachers of great skill and achievement. Such women were the
exception in Korea and formed a tiny modern elite. (Up to that time even
upper-class women seldom received a formal education, and Yoon was literate
only because her father had sent her to elementary school disguised as a
KIM became a student of Domestic Science at Ewha and vowed to work for the
social emancipation of Korean women, in particular Korea's rural women. Her
chief mentor at the university was Professor Choi E Soon, a specialist in
elementary education whose discipline and integrity KIM greatly admired and
who became her role model.
Graduating from Ewha in July 1949, KIM immediately began teaching Domestic
Science—which included cooking, sewing, and embroidering—to poor girls who
attended middle school at Korea Women's Social Institution in Gyesung,
Kyunggi-do. Less than a year later she married Song Sung Kyu, an
acquaintance from high school days. His family, like KIM’s, had moved to
Kimchun from elsewhere—in their case, from Pusan. He had attended a private
high school for boys, and the two young people met at church. (Songs father
was a prominent Protestant theologian, the first Ph.D. in Theology in Korea,
and the founder of Han Gook University of Korean Theology.) After high
school, Song attended Yon Se University in Seoul where he studied English
literature. Following graduation, like KIM, he had entered the teaching
The newlyweds set up housekeeping in Seoul. Two months later they made a
trip to Sangjoo where KIM’s natural parents were once again residing. The
occasion was her father's birthday: he would be sixty, an age marked by
Koreans with special celebrations. After the festivities, Song returned to
Seoul but KIM decided to stay behind with her family since she was in the
early throes of pregnancy. Just a few days later, 25 June 1950, North Korea
invaded South Korea, and the conditions around Sangjoo made it impossible
for the couple to reunite. KIM was, therefore, still in Sangjoo with her
family on 22 January 1951 when her daughter, Woojung, was born.
In the turbulent months that followed, the fighting was very close to
Sangjoo. Normal life was wholly disrupted. KIM sewed trousers and dresses
for people in the neighborhood to help make ends meet. Meanwhile, in Seoul,
communist partisans kidnapped her father-in-law. Her mother-in-law, fearing
the worst, fled with relatives to the south and settled on desolate Koje
Island (Kojedo), near Pusan. No word of her father-in-law was received for
ten years. Finally, a newspaper article revealed that he had died while
being taken north by his captors.
Stranded in Sangjoo, KIM had no word of her husband either. He seemed to
have disappeared amidst the general confusion and she feared he was dead.
Eventually a message arrived from his mother, asking KIM to join her on Koje.
Strapping her baby daughter on her back, KIM ventured south, traveling here
by train, there by bus or truck. Sometimes she walked. Finally, on 17 August
she boarded a small boat to make her way from Pusan to the Koje Island port
of Changsungpo, where her mother-in-law had been allotted a room in a house
belonging to a local Christian school. KIM and Woojung moved in.
KIM now learned that her husband had survived the turmoil but had taken up
life with another woman. Confronted with this "unbelievable reality," which
came amidst so many other shocking and brutal events, KIM vowed to put the
past behind her quickly. Comforting her bereaved mother-in-law who had taken
her in, she proceeded to cope.
Although spared the danger of combat, Koje Island was in every other way
war-torn and desolate. Koje's rough and largely mountainous terrain had
never been a bountiful provider. Now a flood of penniless refugees
overwhelmed its simple facilities and rudimentary economy. A huge
prisoner-of-war camp had also been set up there. Along with its many
thousands of inmates came an influx of Korean and international soldiers to
guard and run it. In this frontier-like atmosphere the decencies and social
norms of peacetime were often absent. People struggled just to survive.
KIM found succor among members of the Changsungpo Presbyterian Church where
she soon began volunteering, and in a short time she was employed by the
local middle school to teach home economics.
A fellow churchgoer was Mr. Kim Won Kyu, who was then head of the Koje
branch of the government's Social Welfare Department and who would later
hold a senior social welfare position at the national level. One Sunday
afternoon he asked KIM to accompany him on a walk. Leaving her daughter in
the care of her mother-in-law, KIM followed him up into the bleak hills
outside of town. The lower reaches of the hills were covered with the
makeshift mud huts of refugees. They approached one of the huts, so
rudimentary that it lacked even a door—there was only a burlap sack across
Entering, KIM saw seven newborn infants lying on the floor, four of them so
young that their umbilical cords had not yet dried. Kim Won Kyu then turned
to her and ordered her to care for the babies. "For how long?" she asked.
Losing his temper, the government official retorted: "What do you mean, how
long? Don't you realize how lucky you are just to have survived this
conflict? You must take care of these babies!" And he turned and walked
What was she to do? Overcome by her feelings, KIM broke down and wept. She
wept for the infants who were so vulnerable and needy. And she wept for
herself. At the same time she prayed for deliverance from the task thrust so
precipitously upon her, as it seemed, by God himself. She remembered hearing
about a saint who had lived his life for orphans and in her prayers she
cried out: "I cannot lead my life like that saint; give me some other work
All night long, remaining with the babies, she wept and prayed. At dawn she
heard church bells and a voice saying: "Why are you afraid of going down to
the level of these abandoned children? Why not bring them up to the level of
your own life?" KIM realized then that she could not abandon the children,
that she was being called upon to provide for them as for her very own. She
knelt again in prayer, saying: "God, you are right. I will live with them
Three of the infants were boys and four were girls. KIM had no idea who
their parents were, but one was clearly Eurasian, probably the child of one
of the thousands of United Nations soldiers and a local woman. The others
were evidently Korean, children of refugees without hope, dying or dead. As
KIM was well aware, in those days "there were abandoned babies everywhere.
They were almost like wastepaper in the baskets." Entrusting her own
daughter to her mother-in-law, KIM moved into the mud hut to devote herself
totally to the care of her new children.
Feeding them, clothing them, keeping them warm, nursing the weak ones to
health—these urgent tasks called not only upon her compassion but upon her
practical knowledge of cooking, sewing, and hygiene—skills that Kim Won Kyu
was well aware she had when he placed them in her care.
In the grim months that followed she was often forced to beg for food,
supplies, and assistance. Her mother-in-law helped, and soon so did other
volunteers from the church. As word of her work got around, little by little
other help arrived—but so did more babies! KIM would rise in the morning to
find yet more abandoned infants outside the hut. In three years' time there
would be over two hundred of them.
KIM learned to improvise. Further up on the deforested hills was vacant
land. With the permission of the owners, she leveled a plot of land and laid
a foundation of stones, mud, and sections of metal drums that had been
flattened under the wheels of sand-laden trucks plying the road to the
prisoner-of-war camp. Above the foundation, KIM erected a large tent
contributed by the Social Welfare Department. She asked some young refugees,
who had set up a Christian men's club called the New Life Movement, to help
her with the heavy work. The tent dwelling was erected on Christmas Day,
1952, and KIM promptly moved in with her babies.
Her new "babies home" was larger and cleaner than the original hut and could
be heated through the floor, Korean fashion. Around it she began to build
more permanent dwellings. In time, through gifts from family, friends, and a
Canadian United Church missionary named Ada Sandel, she was able to purchase
the land. She also found she could call on Christian women—ministers' and
deacons' wives and others—to share in the daily work of clothing and feeding
the children and cleaning the home. In a spirit of mutual help, she shared
with the volunteers the food donations she received.
There was not much food to go around, however. Korean relief agencies
provided small rations of skim milk and rice but never enough; malnutrition
and diarrhea often threatened the babies' lives. To make up for food
shortfalls, KIM began to grow soybeans for soy milk and sought contributions
from every conceivable donor.
Among the few with well-stocked kitchens in those days were camps of the
American soldiers. One day KIM walked twenty-four kilometers to ask help
from such a unit, explaining her needs to a Korean interpreter there. He
summarily denied her an interview with a senior officer and sent her home in
a jeep. She was bitter with rage. Soon, however, produce from American
warehouses began arriving regularly twice a month at the orphanage—dried
beans, soybeans, and green peppers, all "appearing like gifts from Santa
The signing of the Armistice Agreement in 1953 brought another boon from the
Americans. Left behind in the wake of their departure was a treasure of
useful debris including wooden crates, glass, and other materials useful for
building. KIM exploited this windfall to put up permanent block houses as
well as a two-story dining hall and multipurpose room. Korean soldiers, led
by an army engineer, did the actual construction. CARE donated the roof.
KIM gradually assembled a staff of two or three young women who lodged with
her and the children and helped care for them. But she also had the added
responsibility of her own daughter because her mother-in-law had returned to
By 1954 KIM had given her burgeoning hillside community a name: Ai Kwang
Won, the Garden of Love and Light. That same year it was officially
registered and acquired a legal identity as the Ai Kwang Won Foundation.
From the small band of local friends and benefactors came its first board of
directors. But outside the island, people had begun to take notice. Among
them was Russell Sage of Foster Parents Plan, whose organization helped her
annually from 1955 onward. In March of that year the governor of Kyung Nam
Province, of which Koje Island is a part, awarded KIM a citation for public
Although the end of the fighting brought relief of many kinds to the
beleaguered Koreans, it also deprived Koje of its only hospital. The
hospital, a branch of the Seoul-based Severance Hospital, had been set up
during the war and KIM had taken her sick babies to it for treatment and
medicines. But the branch was closed when hostilities ended. Now when
measles or pneumonia attacked, she had to take her ailing children across
the straits to Pusan to the hospitals there. More than once some of her tiny
charges died aboard the ancient, heatless ferry on the long, rough crossing,
and she was compelled to strap their lifeless bodies to her back as she
proceeded with the others to Pusan and back again.
Not all of KIM’s charges were infants. Sometimes whole families of
parentless children would arrive at her doorstep. And of course, in time,
the babies themselves achieved school age. Ai Kwang Won thus became much
more than a "babies home," and KIM strove to provide a healthy atmosphere
for growing children—discipline, religious and ethical training, individual
attention, and love. Try as she might, however, KIM knew that Ai Kwang Won
could never provide the experience of growing up in a real family. She
therefore took great pains to find permanent homes for her charges. She was
not too shy to approach people at church, in the market, or even at public
bath houses, to ask: "Do you need someone? I have a daughter and a son who
need special love and care." Sometimes, she admits, she begged.
KIM knew that Korean society generally tended to be inimical to orphans,
subjecting them to scorn and resentment. Although she managed to find dozens
of Korean families to adopt some of her children, the vast majority were
adopted by couples from Europe and North America. She became adept at
working with the various foreign adoption agencies established in Korea. Of
the 250 Ai Kwang Won children legally adopted, approximately two hundred
were placed with families abroad.
When they reached school age her children went to the free local grammar
school, but they could not go on to higher schools because, for these, the
government charged stiff fees. KIM was concerned that the children's
education was limited. She was especially concerned for the girls—not only
her girls but those of rural Koje who, because of poverty or conservative
parents, were launched into adult life prematurely and without skills to
fend for themselves.
Her formative years at Ewha University had instilled in KIM a desire to work
for the financial independence and dignity of Korea's rural women, a desire
the traumatic events of the war and the preoccupations of Ai Kwang Won had
not diminished. Moreover, now she had numerous "daughters" of her own. With
this in mind, KIM determined to establish a trade school for girls at Ai
With assistance from the Korean government, from a group of Korean navy men
stationed nearby who helped put up the new building, as well as from CARE
and Save the Children Fund, which provided sewing machines and other
materials, her new school was able to open in 1958. "One person, one skill"
was the motto of Ai Kwang Won's Vocational Training Institute, where in
six-month long courses girls learned how to knit, sew, type, embroider,
cook, and clean, as well as cut and style women's hair.
Many of the girls opened their own businesses afterwards, and Koje Island
soon sprouted beauty parlors and knitting and sewing shops run by her
graduates. Some years later (1970) KIM added a technical school where young
boys learned carpentry, tree pruning, and gardening. This ran until the
Korean government made middle school mandatory. Earlier (1967), by making
shrewd use of idle space, KIM also established Korea's first summer youth
hostel for Koreans and foreigners, an enterprising project that generated
extra income for Ai Kwang Won for several years.
By 1970 KIM had also attacked the problem of Koje's medical needs. Not only
were her children in need of a medical facility, so too were the other
residents of the island. The fishermen, for example, had no recourse to
rapid surgery if they suffered appendicitis at sea. With help from Dr. Kee-Ryo
Chang, founder of Gospel Hospital in Pusan, she set up a general medical
clinic at Ai Kwang Won to serve her children and her workers, as well as the
community at large. Dr. Chang helped equip the clinic and staff it with
doctors and nurses from Pusan. KIM and the Ai Kwang Won Foundation provided
the facility itself—another new building in the hillside compound.
Koje Christian Hospital—as KIM named the new clinic—operated on this basis
for several years, assisted at times by American Peace Corps volunteers and
by occasional donations from abroad. In the mid-1970s, however, Gospel
Hospital abruptly recalled its medical equipment. KIM’s daughter, now an
adult and settled abroad, successfully combed the United States for surplus
surgical equipment and Mr. K. A. Johnson, an American foster parent, donated
a used X-ray machine. When a full-service hospital was built on Koje in
1978—yet another civic project in which KIM was instrumental—the Ai Kwang
Won clinic was closed.
The war was long over and Korea was prospering; there were fewer orphans. As
more and more of Ai Kwang Won's children found homes in Korea or abroad,
only the handicapped and retarded were left. Aware that in Korea such
children suffered as outcasts in their own families and were sometimes
subjected to cruel mental and physical abuse, KIM resolved henceforth to
devote herself exclusively to this scorned and vulnerable minority. In 1978,
therefore, KIM transformed Ai Kwang Won into a home for the handicapped. In
the following years it became a haven for the retarded, the speech impaired,
the epileptic, and the victims of cerebral palsy. These young people
required special attention. Some could neither sit, stand, eat by
themselves, nor use the bathroom without assistance. Many suffered epileptic
spells. Ai Kwang Won's simple buildings had not been designed with such
needs in mind, nor for the number of specialists who were now added to its
staff. It needed another new building.
KIM was quite adept at mobilizing enthusiasm for her projects and had the
unqualified confidence and support of Ai Kwang Won's board members, plus a
loyal circle of friends at home and abroad. Among them was Kim Won Kyu, the
man who had forced on her the first seven orphans. She now called upon these
friends to help her build a home tailor-made for the handicapped.
While contributions came from Japan, West Germany, and the United States,
the Korean government paid half the cost. Local private donors included Mr.
and Mrs. Yoon David Choong Sop; Kim Young Joon; Yeo Moo Nam; and Kim Woo
Chung, president of Daewoo Shipping Company. Dandelion House, as it is
called, was completed in 1986 and by 1989 was home to over two hundred
Why "Dandelion House?" KIM explains that most flowers, once they are stepped
on, cannot survive, whereas the dandelion, though lowly and scorned, is
actually both lovely and resilient—like these children.
Dandelion House was built with the realization that for most of these
children it would be their only home. From it, she says, they will make only
two trips: "to the hospital when they are sick, and when God calls them."
This is why she spared no pain or expense to make it a pleasant place.
Children receive the loving attention of therapists and housemothers
(thirty-three of them) as well as of KIM herself. Their lives are punctuated
by special events, including birthday celebrations and religious services.
Moreover, Dandelion House is spacious, clean, and bright with sunlight and
flowers. Its grounds are planted with evergreen trees and subtropical
plants. And from its large windows the children may look directly out upon
the beauty of Koje Bay.
So pleasant is Dandelion House that some people have questioned "such a
mansion for these people?" But KIM responds by saying that normality is a
gift from God, and normal people may hope for a better life on earth through
their own efforts. These children have no such hope. Moreover, God has a
purpose in placing them here. "It is our duty to help them," she insists.
At Dandelion House, severely retarded and other disabled young people
receive daily care and life training. Where possible, their faculties for
physical coordination and speech are developed. Many of them attend nearby
Koje Ai Kwang Won (Special) School, founded by KIM in 1980 and run initially
by her sister, Kim Mal Soon, who has been her partner for thirty-five years
and now heads Dandelion House. The school's seventeen teachers provide
instruction from nursery through high school for its 175 children.
Meanwhile, at Erwin House (a workshop established in 1988), older students
learn skills such as sewing, ceramics, carpentry, animal husbandry, and
organic vegetable gardening. Other residents perform odd jobs in the
compound, and one works in a bakery nearby. Many help make greeting cards
and other items for sale in the foundation's gift shop.
KIM has had to make special arrangements for Dandelion House's adolescents
and young adults, directing their energies to useful channels and providing
separate quarters for males and females. One couple has married. She hopes
that in the future some of her charges will be able to live in
semi-independent family units.
This is but one of several plans KIM is making for the future. Another is a
new school building. (She is still using the old pre-Dandelion House
structure, which is showing its age.) More money is needed but KIM does not
worry. She says that in her thirty-eight years of work on Koje Island, she
has experienced the biblical miracle of the loaves and fishes "many hundreds
Building and guiding the Ai Kwang Won Foundation over the years has taught
KIM the power of patience, of good faith, and of her own will. In the
beginning, sheer desperation made her uninhibited about asking, insisting,
even begging that people do something. In time this became habitual and she
became Koje Island's leading mover and shaker. Her interventions with
outside agencies helping Ai Kwang Won brought boons to the larger community
as well. In 1953 she persuaded the Foster Parents Plan to donate ten
thousand pairs of shoes to Koje's primary-school children and CARE to
provide one hundred goats to the town's returning war veterans. Later she
prevailed upon CARE to donate eighty three-ton fishing boats to the island's
fisherfolk after a 1959 typhoon had destroyed their fleet. In the same year
some two thousand needy persons received free medical care when, at KIM’s
request, Dr. Choi Ha Jin and other doctors from Pusan University brought a
medical mission to the island. A decade later KIM called in a team from
Pusan General Hospital to help avert a deadly epidemic in the villages of
Ah-ju and Ah-yang, and also persuaded the United States Navy to send a team
of doctors and dentists to treat seven thousand villagers in Changsungpo.
At the same time, KIM became an active promoter of economic development on
Koje. She helped coax the Ham-tae Coal Mining Company to locate a coal
briquette factory there in 1959 and, for nine years, was a member of the
Rural Community Development Committee of Kyung Nam Province. In this
capacity she invited the Dong Ah University dean of the Department of
Engineering to draw up a master development plan for the island. As a
result, the Ministry of Construction designated Koje County a model county
and stepped up its road building program there.
For four years beginning in 1969, KIM sat on the advisory committee of the
provincial government, during which time she helped organize a credit union
at Changsungpo, build a social center there, and set up a children’s
library. She also hosted a series of workshops on commercial development
that, among other things, led to the introduction of plum cultivation in the
Whenever she could she steered help to where it was needed: from Britain's
Save the Children Fund to 150 needy families in 1970; from the Foster
Parents Plan to 400 poor families between 1971 and 1977; and from the Korea
Deep Sea Fishing Company to jobs for over one hundred of Koje's young men in
1972. KIM has also shared Ai Kwang Won's facilities with the community. For
example, well over one hundred couples from local villages have been married
in its multipurpose auditorium and worship room.
Over the years, Koje Island has prospered along with the rest of South
Korea. Two of the country's huge industrial conglomerates, Daewoo and
Samsung, have located shipyards there, and by the mid-1980s Koje was no
longer an island of rural villages, and Changsungpo no longer a small
fishing port. As one visitor described the latter, it has become "a modern,
newly built, expanding, thriving, prosperous seaport with . . . new roads,
shipbuilding yards, supermarkets, and heavy traffic."
As the island changed, so did its needs. Rapid economic development and
prosperity for some altered traditional social relations and mores and
attracted newcomers. With these changes came new tensions in the workplace
and in the family—tensions that could not be resolve or repressed in the
traditional fashion. For example, when serious conflicts arose between
husbands and wives, legal action was often required to resolve them. But the
legal system was complicated and lawyers were expensive. Many people did not
know what to do and women, especially, needed help and protection.
For many years women in distress had sought KIM out for sympathy and counsel
and for referrals to helping agencies. In 1988 KIM established and became
the head of the Koje branch of the Korean Legal Aid Center for Family
Relations, which had been founded by Lee Tai-Young. There now exists this
formal source of help and legal aid for families in crisis. KIM also took
the lead in introducing family planning education to the community.
KIM’s good works have not gone unnoticed. Ever since the mid-1950s she has
received repeated accolades and citations for public service from the Kyung
Nam provincial governor. In 1963 the president of Korea awarded her the
Medal of Merit for Public Good and in 1970 named her to the National Order
of Merit. Awards from Korea's Ministries of Culture and Information, Health
and Social Affairs, and the Home Ministry followed throughout the 1970s and
1980s, as well as recognition by the National Women's Council, the National
Red Cross, and many local organizations. In 1985 Ewha Woman's University
named KIM one of its top one hundred graduates.
Why has she led such a life? KIM admits that had the war not intervened she
might have lived out her life in a much more conventional way, mothering a
family, fostering a husband's career, contributing where she could to the
good efforts of her church and other organizations in the community, perhaps
teaching at a university. But because of the war, she says, "everything was
broken." This freed her to do "the enormous work of God, to be part of the
Great Cartwheel." In all this, she says, her part has been no more than that
of a tiny grain of sand within the vast universe. She points out, for
example, that there are probably half a million mentally retarded people in
Korea alone who need care.
Nevertheless, she believes God is mindful of what she is doing. For example,
she says, in May 1985, shortly before Dandelion House was completed, she was
returning to Koje from Seoul in a truck burdened with goods for Ai Kwang
Won. On the way the truck collided with two men on a motorcycle. The two
cyclists were killed immediately, as was the man driving the truck—Choi Ki
Ryong, for some thirty-two years KIM’s right-hand man, a fellow Christian,
and the devoted manager of Ai Kwang Won. KIM herself was thrown from the
vehicle and landed some five meters away with barely a scratch; not even her
eyeglasses were broken. This miraculous deliverance she sees as a message
that God wishes her work with the Ai Kwang Won Foundation to continue.
Today Ai Kwang Won employs over sixty people, and there are seventeen
buildings within its hillside compound, including a pleasant guest house.
Some 690 of its erstwhile residents lead normal lives in Korea and around
the world; now and then they come home for a visit with Umuh-nee (Mother)
KIM—including several of the original seven orphans.
KIM turned sixty-four in 1989. As she moves in sprightly fashion about Ai
Kwang Won, she is oblivious of her advancing age and of the urgings of
friends to slow down. Her fingers are crooked from years of washing dishes
for hundreds of children. She does not mind. When her daughter chides her,
saying, "Mother, you should take better care of yourself; look at your
hands," KIM replies: "When I meet God I would rather he see these crooked
fingers than perfect ones—the result of idleness and pampering."
Interviews with Kim Im Soon and her daughter. Lee Woojung Song. Visits to Ai
Kwan Won and Changsungpo, as well as Interviews with, and letters from,
persons acquainted with Kim Im Soon and her work.