Iowa City Stories

February 18, 2010

Korea to California to Iowa: Professor Jae-On Kim’s Journey from the Far East to the Midwest

Jae-On Kim

Professor Jae-On Kim, along with a recent award for his scholarly achievements, and his picture on the cover of a national Korean magazine.

By Clae Goater

Jae On-Kim’s life story begins in a poor mountain village in prewar South Korea. Now, at 72 years of age, Kim finds himself as one of the most respected professors in the University of Iowa’s Sociology Department. In the interim, Kim has fled from the North Korean army, participated in the overthrow of South Korea’s first president, taken part in the American civil rights demonstrations of the 1960’s and helped author more than 40 scholarly publications. And that barely scratches the surface.

Humble Beginnings

Kim was born in South Korea in 1938, in a remote town an hour away from the nearest modern road system. His grandfather died before his birth, so Kim’s father was thrust into the patriarchal family role very early. Right before Kim entered elementary school, his family had to move cross-country following a prophecy from Kim’s grand-uncle.

Kim’s first year of elementary school took place under Japanese colonial occupation. “Americans don’t realize that when Koreans still show certain animosity to Japan, that Japan carried out one of the harshest colonial policies ever,” says Kim. “They forced us to give up the Korean language. It was forbidden. They forced us to change our names so they sounded more like Japanese names.” Kim went through half a year of Japanese elementary school before the country was liberated.

The Korean War

Three years later, the Korean War broke out. Kim’s village was soon occupied by the North Koreans. Kim’s father and grand-uncle were forced to flee, while Kim stayed behind. Kim parent’s were labeled as reactionaries, and was he ostracized from other children.

Soon, Kim also had to flee from his village along with his brother and a deserter from the North Korean army. While fleeing through the mountains, Kim and his party ran into members of the Red Army digging trenches. “Normally, if they caught us, they knew. But the North Koreans digging up the holes were too busy. They simply asked us, ‘Are you civilians?’ We said ‘Yes,’ and they let us go away. So we had a very narrow escape.”

Kim sought refuge with his companion’s sister, subsisting on whatever resources they could scavenge.  “The mushrooms we ate there were fantastic,” Kim said. “They tasted like chicken.”

Kim hid from the North Koreans for about 10 days. Then an airplane passed over, distributing pamphlets saying that their area had been liberated. So Kim and his brother returned to their home, soon followed by their father and uncle.

Korean Education and The April Revolution

At age 12, Kim left home to attend school in Daegu. He went on to attend Seoul National University from 1957-1961. There, he participated in the famous April Revolutions, a nationwide protest that resulted the resignation of South Korean President Syngman Rhee.

There were many reasons for political unrest in South Korea at the time. The economy was doing badly and Rhee was exercising nearly unrestrained political power. An incident in Kim’s youth illustrated how far Rhee’s underlings were willing to go to shield him from the social realities of the time.

Protests began following the fraudulent election of an unpopular vice president . Soon after, the body of protester Kim Ju-Yul washed up on the shore of Masan beach. An autopsy revealed the high school student’s cause of death when doctors found grenade fragments behind his eyes. Kim and thousands of other college students marched from their campus to the presidential palace. Protesters were soaked with high-pressure water from fire trucks. When that failed to stop them, troops opened fire, killing several. “I ran immediately when they really began to shoot,” Kim said. More protests followed, ultimately resulting in Rhee’s resignation.

Kim says that the student protests demonstrated to him the corrupting potential of power. Once the South Korean students realized how much influence they had, they began to throw their weight around for less altruistic causes. From that point on, Kim resisted taking high-status positions. Looking back, Kim was baffled by how often power was thrust upon his reluctant shoulders.

Berkeley in the 1960’s

After four years at Seoul National University, Kim did a mandatory tour of duty in the South Korean Army. After one year, Kim received an honorary discharge so that he could study abroad. After two years at Southern Illinois University, Kim went to UC Berkeley to get his Ph.D.

Kim’s stay at Berkeley during the late 60’s put him in the center of the countercultural movements of the time. Kim lived in a 2nd floor apartment directly across from the UC campus. His apartment was frequently filled with the teargas used to disperse nearby crowds.

Kim’s participation in anti- Vietnam War protests eventually roused the awareness of the Korean CIA. He was warned by the military government that if he returned to his home country, he’d be imprisoned. Kim’s father worried for his safety. Kim’s uncle was proud that his nephew had become noteworthy enough to earn the government’s ire.

Kim made a name for himself in academia when he attended a joint conference between Stanford and Berkeley. Kim was a lowly research assistant, surrounded by some of the biggest names in the field of sociology. There, he pointed out faulty research methods that had gone unnoticed by the auditorium full of worldly scholars. According to Kim, “That determined my academic career.” His willingness to dissent gained him the attention of Sidney Verba, who later provided a glowing recommendation of Kim to the University of Iowa.

Iowa City

Kim’s move from California to Iowa City came with some culture shock. “Iowa, in some ways, is very advanced, but it had very rural qualities. Since then, of course, it’s changed substantially.”  During Kim’s stay here, attitudes towards women and minorities have become far more liberal. Kim recalls boarding a bus in Iowa City and hearing a child using racial epithets towards an African-American. When Kim came to Iowa in the 70’s, women were criminally underrepresented in the faculty. The single, token woman professor was looked down upon by male faculty members.

Kim never felt that he was mistreated because of his race. He saw himself as being judged on the merits of his work. He’s also willing to admit that prejudice is universal, so he recognizes a certain amount of cultural uneasiness is natural.

The Future

Professor Kim is proud of his accomplishments here at the University. As Chair of the Sociology Department, he helped shape the University of Iowa’s program into one of the best in the nation. During his time as Director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, Kim made large advances towards making Asian culture more prominent here in the Midwest.

Kim is reluctant to call himself a good teacher. Sociology major Ryan Maher applauds Kim for his international viewpoint. “He seems able to look at everything from a global perspective,” Maher says. ”That’s good for a professor. It expands your outlook on everything. It opens your eyes.”

At 72, Kim maintains his exhaustive pace, although he claims to be “not a very diligent scholar.” He expects that his academic output will increase in the next few years. “What gave me longevity was that I kept up with new technology,” says Kim. “I try to stay up to date with…computer software. “ Kim also says that he’s never lost the spirit of intellectual curiosity during his lifetime. He believes he has at least another 10 years worth of work in him, and he hopes to repay the University of Iowa for all it has done for him.

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