Ryan Schuessler
Ryan Schuessler

Korean-American military brides find refuge in tiny Missouri church

Pastor is building a spiritual home for women who need help after broken marriages to US GIs

Editor’s note: Meesoon Lee is a pseudonym. She spoke to Al Jazeera under the condition that her real name not be used.

ROBERTSVILLE, Mo. — Meesoon Lee doesn’t like to talk about the past.

Sitting at a rickety card table next to her pastor, Lee spoke quietly about her life. The shy 62-year-old spent her youth in Seoul. That’s where she met her husband, an American GI stationed in South Korea. The two were married, and she moved to New Orleans with him. They had two daughters.

“He left me,” Lee said.

After her husband moved, she became homeless. Her children were placed for adoption, and they lost touch. She lived on the streets of New Orleans for 15 years.

That is until a group of women picked Lee up and cared for her when no one else would. She is one of six women that Missouri-based pastor Minji Stark’s congregation call “the sisters.” They are the oldest women in her church, and several of them are military brides who, like Lee, fell on hard times and had nowhere to turn. Around the church, they are known to keep to themselves and don’t say much, offering only short answers to questions.

The sisters are a few of the many tens of thousands of Korean women who immigrated to the United States after marrying American servicemen. Most such marriages eventually fell apart, in some cases leaving the women vulnerable to homelessness or poverty. Stark’s goal is this: to build a sanctuary where women like the sisters can turn for help.

Peace Village is a Methodist church in rural, unincorporated Roberstville, Missouri, with a congregation largely made up of Korean women who married American GIs stationed in South Korea. Stark is married to an American man she met during his tour. “Peace Village is hope for whoever is alone,” she said. “When I visit different places and meet the people and I tell them about Peace Village, it gives them hope.”

Peace Village is more than a church, she says. It is a community the women carved out for themselves when they found they had none. She knows there are more women who could go there, but for now, she does not have the capacity to take them. The calls roll in from all over the country, but she has to turn them away.

Lee was lucky. In 1995 she was taken to New York from New Orleans by a Korean-American pastor who had opened a shelter for Asian-American women in need. Many of the women who passed through there, she said, were military brides like her. In 2000 she and several other women were relocated to the St. Louis area, where Stark took care of them.

Pastor Minji Stark preaches to the congregation of Peace Village.

Sitting at a congregant’s kitchen table in suburban St. Louis with her hands wrapped around a steaming mug of barley tea, Stark spoke of her work. She believes it is God’s work, done through her. “We learn from the bad things, and we learn from the good things,” she said. She paused to sip the tea. The other women nodded in silence. “Either way, we learn. Someone with the good life to help the bad life.”

The history and experience of Korean military brides in the United States is long and complicated and is rooted in the nuances of modern Korean history. American GIs have maintained a constant presence on the Korean Peninsula since 1945, when the United States and the Soviet Union overthrew the Japanese colonial government there. Camp towns formed around U.S. military bases during and after the war, and Korean women began meeting American men.

That’s basically how Lee met her husband. Like many Korean women living in poverty at the time, she found work in a camp town near Seoul. She worked in a club.

“Everybody was poor,” she said about her years in South Korea. She said a friend introduced her to her husband, who was stationed near Seoul. Lee was 22 when the two were married in 1974. She moved to New Orleans with him in 1976. During her years with him, Lee was “just a housewife,” she said. “It was not a happy marriage.”

It is believed that  80 to 90 percent of the now more than 100,000 marriages between Korean women and American servicemen since 1945 have ended in divorce or separation. That’s a number that is more anecdotal than empirical, but is cited by activists and community members as well as small group of Korean-American academics who study Korean military brides in the United States.

The experiences of these women obviously vary greatly, professors Grace Cho and Ji-Yeon Yuh said, but a significant number suffer intense loneliness, isolation from Korean culture, pressure to assimilate, strained relationships with family members and, in some cases, mental illness, suicide and domestic or sexual abuse. And there is a stigma from other Korean-Americans, said Cho, who studies the role of military brides in the Korean-American psyche at the College of Staten Island. In Korea, she said, it is typical “that if you go to work in a camp town, then you’re no longer Korean. The society rejects you.” There’s even an expression in Korean: “Korean in body but no longer in mind or spirit.”

‘If you go to work in a camp town, then you’re [perceived as] no longer Korean. The society rejects you.’

Grace Cho

professor, CUNY College of Staten Island

At least part of the stigma stems from the government-sanctioned prostitution catering to American GIs that was a visible part of life in camp towns, even though sex work was illegal in the rest of South Korea, said Yuh, a professor of Asian-American history at Northwestern University. There is no evidence that suggests that the majority of Korean military brides in the United States were prostitutes, Yuh said, but the stereotype became pervasive in South Korea and the United States.

There is a pejorative term often used to describe people like Lee — women who married U.S. servicemen: yanggongju. It translates to “Western princess” and is laden with prurient assumptions.

In one circle, women like Lee were yanggongju. In another, they were foreign war brides. It is these women who Stark is hoping to reach — the women whose intercultural marriages fell apart and left them without much in terms of a support system.

One of Peace Village’s sisters, also formerly married to an American GI, developed a mental disability. “She hears voices,” Stark said. The sister was the serviceman’s third wife. They lived in a motel in Colorado, and one day he left and never returned. Stark says that when the police found her — waiting for him — the sister was “so, so thin” from hunger. There was “no supportive society. No church. Nobody.”

Another of the sisters in Missouri showed up at Stark’s church one day with two suitcases. She was from Kentucky, where she had left her husband and three children. She wouldn’t say much about why her marriage fell apart. “It just happens,” she said. “All the time, hunting and fishing, drinking.”

The stories are not limited to St. Louis. or the Midwest. Stark has traveled around the U.S. and has heard variations of the themes of desertion and despair from all parts of the country. In Chicago a homeless Korean woman who was abandoned by her American husband was leaving the vacant building where she and other people slept during the winter, and she was run over by a truck and killed. She was the first woman Stark heard about and the one whose story drove Stark to take action. “I stayed up all night thinking about her,” she recalled. “I had no rest.”

Some of Peace Village’s “sisters” at the church in Robertsville.

In Memphis, Tennessee, Stark met an elderly widow whose husband left her nothing. She was working a cleaning job to support her four grandchildren after her daughter, the children’s mother, was murdered. When Stark asked why she never left her unhappy marriage, she said, “‘he was my two kids’ father and my four grandkids’ grandfather. That’s why I keep him.’”

In Killeen, Texas, Stark met a young woman who was living in a motel after she and her American husband split. The woman was raped in the motel, and she had a baby, who was put up for adoption. The woman is still reluctant to move to Missouri “because she knows her baby is near,” Stark said.

In Boston, Stark met a woman married to an American man 12 years her junior. He cheated on her for eight years, and she was contemplating suicide in the days before she heard Stark give a presentation about Peace Village.

“‘I found my home today,’” Stark recalled the woman saying. “‘I’m not going to be alone anymore.’”

“I told her, ‘Just wait and pray. One day we will get together.’”

Stark travels the country to talk about her vision for Peace Village: a church, a cultural center and duplexes for the sisters and other women to live in. It will be a place where older Korean-Americans may retire and where church groups or young people may hold retreats. It’s a scenic piece of land overlooking a small pond.

If completed, Peace Village will be a place where Korean-Americans like the sisters will finally reconnect with their culture — together — in a way that has seldom been possible. The women have already started a vegetable garden behind the church, where they grow red peppers and cabbage to make kimchi. In the summer they look for mushrooms in the nearby woods. A stray dog they named Happy has taken up residence too.

The church is already built, but there is no money to build the duplexes that Stark envisions. In the meantime, she said, women are waiting, and some are suffering.

“That is why we need to hurry up,” she said.

On Dec. 31 last year, the congregation met for a special service and lunch of tteokguk, a brothy Korean soup traditionally served to celebrate the New Year. One woman drove three hours from Springfield, Missouri, to be there. As they ate the soup, filled with rice and spicy kimchi dumplings, the sisters sat in silence. Other women joked about their absent American husbands or their U.S.-born children who refuse to eat Korean food.

Meesoon Lee got word of her kids recently. Stark was able to track down Lee’s two daughters and is working on arranging a visit. They mailed Stark a photo to show Lee.

Sitting at a folding table, Stark prompted Lee to speak, asking how her life is.

“It is good now,” Lee said with a faint smile.

When Lee found out that Stark had gotten in touch with her daughters, she also got a piece of good news:

She’s a grandmother now.

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