Family Found: Sisters are reunited in
South Korea after not having seen
each other for 45 years
Journal Photo by Traci White
Pictures show Wanda King (in blue)
with her sister Yi Kum Ja in South Korea, Yi with friends in her youth, and King’s original passport photo.
By Janice Gaston | Journal Reporter
Published: July 14, 2008
Wanda King's life in the United States has been a good one.
But as a child in North Korea, she lived under communism and saw the effects of war. She remembers seeing red skies after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and her mother warning, "Don't you go outside! You're going to be sick." As American bombs fell on her own country during the Korean War, she and her family fled south with hundreds of other refugees to escape the fighting. They ate insects and slept in rice paddies to survive.
"I don't have a happy life when I was young," she said. "I have a hard life."
Although conditions improved after the war, she was still living in poverty in 1962 when she met Ben King, a young soldier from Davie County. He fell in love with her, and he vowed not to leave South Korea without her.
She was 23 when she married him and left her family behind in Seoul. She built her own family in a new country.
Her children grew up with plenty of food and without fear of bombs falling in the night. King, now 68, watched with pride as they married and started forming their own families.
Despite all that she had, King mourned what she had lost.
After she first left South Korea with her husband, King and her family communicated through letters. Eventually, they lost touch. Brenda Landau of Davidson, King's oldest daughter, said, "For the past 44 years, my mother has been heartbroken over not knowing the whereabouts or well-being of her family in Korea."
Now, her heart overflows. In late May and early June, she spent two weeks with Yi Kum Ja, her youngest sister, in Seoul. She met nieces and nephews and in-laws.
King's tie to her family had unraveled as she followed her soldier husband from place to place.
"I send letter; it come back," she said. "I send back; it come back again." After five or six tries, she gave up. The same thing happened with her family in Korea; letters to King came back. She worried and wondered about her father, her brothers and her sisters. Her mother died of a heart attack in 1956, at 39.
"I started having children," King said. "I raised my children all over. I think of my family I can't find no more."
Last spring, King's children, Landau, Sharon Thompson of Bermuda Run and Marcus King of Burlington, hired a private investigator who had experience in finding lost Korean relatives. They had grown up with questions about their heritage and the other side of their family. Their mother didn't like to talk about the past and the hard times that she had experienced when she was young.
The investigator gave no guarantees, Landau said. But he told them that if he could find a record on their mother, his chances of finding a relative were 90 percent. In May, the investigator found King's niece, the daughter of her oldest brother.
When he asked about other family members, the answer was always the same: "Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead." The niece didn't know what had happened to Yi.
A few days later, the investigator called Landau and asked, "Have you checked your e-mail? We found your aunt. I talked to her an hour and a half ago, and she's waiting for your mom to call her."
King called, and the two sisters stumbled through a tearful conversation. Yi, 10 years younger than King, had lived in South Korea since she was a baby. King, who lived in North Korea until she was an adolescent, still spoke Korean with the accent of the North.
English words spilled out when the Korean words wouldn't come. But they managed to communicate.
"Did you have a good life?" Yi asked. "Are you still married to that man?"
Right away, King knew she wanted to go to Seoul to see her sister. She wanted to see the woman her sister had become.
Born in North Korea
King, whose Korean name is Yi Kyong Cha (Yi is the surname, placed first in the Korean tradition), was born in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. During the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, her family of eight joined many other North Korean refugees pushed south by the fighting. Sometimes they rode trains; sometimes they walked. King remembers nearly freezing in the Korean winter. "It was cold, cold, cold," she said. Her family had little food.
"I was hunger," King said. "I almost starve. I eat grasshopper, catch anything alive."
Times were still hard in 1962 when she met Ben King. She was working for a cobbler cutting out the soles of shoes. She had grown into a beauty, and he was smitten. A friend introduced them, Ben King said, and they began a halting courtship. She spoke just a few words of English, and he knew just a smattering of Korean.
"He keep on asking me for a date," King said. "I don't know what is a date, and one day he say we go movies." Eventually, he gave her a ring and told her he wanted to marry her and take her to the United States.
"I wasn't going to leave her there," Ben King said.
Landau said that her mother was a free spirit, a little too outgoing and defiant to fit into the stereotypical mold of an Asian woman at that time. Although she struggled with the notion of leaving her country and her family, she decided to accept Ben King's proposal. They married in July of 1962 and left Korea that November.
"When we came back, I was kind of uneasy about how people were going to accept her," Ben King said. But they spent much of their time on military bases -- he stayed in the Army for 21 years -- and mixed marriages were common.
During some periods, she stayed with his parents, where his older sister, Gray Caudle, taught her to cook. She took the lessons to heart.
"She can make biscuits better than anybody," her husband said. His family also gave her the name Wanda because no one could pronounce her Korean name correctly. When she became an American citizen, she did so under the name of Kyong Cha King.
"They asked if I wanted to change," she said. No, she told officials. "I want to keep it."
The couple had two daughters and a son. She taught them never to waste food and reminded them of how lucky they were to live in a land of plenty. When the family lived on Army bases, many of the children had mixed ethnic backgrounds. In 1979, they settled in Advance, where the King children didn't know any other Koreans. They were frequently asked, "What are you?" Prompted by their mother, they answered "I'm an American."
Now, Landau said, she tells people she is half Korean.
An exchange of phone calls
After finding each other again, King and Yi exchanged daily phone calls.
"She thinks it's a dream," King said. "She don't want to wake up." King made plans to fly to Seoul with a friend who had been to South Korea in recent years and could help her find her way.
She arrived at Incheon Airport outside Seoul, weary from a 14-hour flight. She didn't see the little sister she had known in the face of the 59-year-old woman who greeted her with tears, flowers and hugs. Photos taken at the airport captured the emotion of their reunion.
In one, Yi holds King's face in her hands and drinks in the sight of her. In another, she clings to King's arm as a broad smile splits her face. Yi told her, "You still pretty like you was long time," King said.
During her visit, nieces and nephews whom King didn't know came to pay their respects. Everyone treated her like a queen, she said. "My mouth -- I say I want something, they bring me." Her sister, who had worked in a beauty shop, washed her hair every day and gave her pedicures.
King marveled at the changes in South Korea -- the big buildings, the ease with which people divorce, the casual attitude toward drinking. "They are modern!" she said. She was surprised to see her sister drink beer. In her day, she said, "No way drink woman."
She found that Koreans know all about the goings-on in the United States, including the race for president and the slumping economy. They shop at Wal-Mart and Costco and eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Her sister, trying to please King's Americanized palate, served her champagne, bagels, cheesecake and bacon.
"Why you buy these?" King asked. "I say, ‘I want Korean food.'" So Yi took her to a fine Korean restaurant. The sisters talked for hours, sometimes all night, catching up on the years they were apart.
Yi made plans to visit King in Advance, and King's daughters decided that they would accompany their parents and take their own children to South Korea in the fall.
"It's a whole half of our family we have never met before," Thompson, her younger daughter, said. "There are traits and characteristics we have that we can't link to anybody."
As the end of King's visit drew near, Yi urged her sister to stay longer. She declined.
"I'm glad to see you," King told her long-lost sister. "But two, three weeks, I'm ready to go home. That's my country, not Korea. I have live a happy life," she said. "I am happy here."
■ Janice Gaston can be reached at 727-7364 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.