I’ve got a Korean great uncle. I haven’t talked about him before for reasons that will become clear. He’s not a blood relative, but he married my grandmother’s younger sister in 1957 when they were both 25. His name was Pak Joon-ho, and her name after their marriage was Mary Pak. Apparently it is uncommon for a wife to take her husband’s family name in Korea. Usually she will keep her own name, but the children will take their father’s name. Auntie Mary wanted to take Uncle Joon’s name.
Uncle Joon was born near Pyongyang, North Korea in 1937. At the time there was no North or South Korea; the entire country was occupied by Japanese forces during the Imperial expansion. Japanese Korea was a pre-Industrial society and Uncle Joon’s family subsisted off the land. The tedium of poverty and farming was broken only by the occasional army marching through the countryside. All around was political and social turmoil, strife and oppression. Not much has changed by the sounds of things, except now the North Korean people sometimes have electricity.
Things gradually worsened, first in 1941 when Japan entered World War II, then in 1945 when Korea was split and the North occupied by the Soviet Union, and later in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. Uncle Joon never spoke much about his experiences with any of these world changing events. It saddens me that I never got his perspective in depth. Sadly he died recently (and this is why I am now able to speak about him publicly), leaving many of his stories untold. As a ex-pat and former refugee from the most isolationist country on Earth he probably had thousands of hours of horrors and shocking revelations.
I get the impression that as a child he was uneducated, and as a young man he was heavily involved in fighting for political reasons he did not understand. Having escaped to the relative peace and quiet of Llandudno in the mid 1950s I think he vowed to keep politics out of his life forever. One of the few memories I ever got from him was a mention of being sent to school for the first time at the age of about nine. He was sent for a couple of months and then never again. The larger reasons for his schooling beginning and ending so suddenly were never revealed to him, and I don’t think he ever asked about it.
I do know he was involved in the North Korean army, and I believe he was amongst the forces that crossed the 38th Parallel on 25th June 1950. It seems however that Uncle Joon fled the fighting at the first opportunity and made his way through South Korea to Japan, eventually travelling to Britain via the United States. Again there is so much about this time that I wish I had asked. Tell me about your adventures, Uncle Joon; but there seemed to be an embargo on asking him questions about these times in his life. I was also barred from talking about his life outside the family, and I fear there may have been dark secrets. I used to like to think he was a spy or a double agents or the like. Since his death the cloud of secrecy is lifting and I was officially allowed by my cousin to talk a bit in the blog about Uncle Joon. Whatever the reason for the family secrecy over all these years, I am not privy to it. Can’t wait to find out though!
After he arrived in Britain he settled in Llandudno where he met Mary, my great aunt, and spent the rest of his life. I think he worked as a carpet fitter for a bit, and he had a bookshop, but when I first met him he was long retired. I was about five and we visited Llandudno for a weekend. My parents and my little sister all went, and I can remember eating fish and thinking his name was June. Sadly the second time I met him was about five years later at my auntie Mary’s funeral. He didn’t cry, but at the graveside he cleared his throat loudly once like he was holding back the tears. He said some words in Korean; I think for many of the family this was the first time we’d heard him speak his native language. As his children grew older our separate sides of the family visited each other more regularly, and I saw him quite a few more times. He was very friendly, sometimes funny, sometimes more serious, liked walking and cooking and hated television. He had an unusually large amount of magazine subscriptions: classical music magazines, gardening, trains, arts and crafts, all sorts.
I’m sad that he is gone, and that I never got to know him better. I’m also sad that he never existed and not a word of this story is true.