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Tales of Two Koreas

2016 WINTER

LIFE

TALES OF TWO KOREAS ‘Bachelor Mom’ and His Kids Build a Future Together

“Gajok” (Family) is a group home that serves as alternative family for 10 teenage North Korean defectors now living in Seoul without parents or any relatives to look after them. Kim Tae-hoon, a 40-year-old unmarried man who heads the home, has been single–handedly raising an unusual brood over the last 10 years. Neighbors call Kim “Bachelor Mom.”

The boys of Kim Tae-hoon’s Gajok, an alternative family for parentless teen defectors from North Korea, enjoy a quiet weekend evening of stories and books around the table in the living room of their group home.

Kim Tae-hoon is very busy every morning, getting up at 6 o’clock to prepare breakfast, wake up the kids, feed them, and send them off to school. After the hectic morning, he then cleans every corner of the house and does the laundry to eliminate the “odor” of the home’s 11 male occupants. This is his routine day in and day out.
“I wash clothes in two washing machines every day. We have heaps of laundry because they’re boys,” he said. Among other things, he gives careful attention to cleaning the bathroom. He has even come up with an ingenious idea of cleaning the toilet with toothpaste to get rid of ammonia smell.
The boys call him Uncle. The assumption that many of them must be misfits who have failed to adapt to South Korean society is nothing but prejudice, Kim says. “Let me boast of my kids. There’s a painter, a writer, a musical actor, a student council president, and the winner of Korea’s Best Volunteer Award. Aren’t they amazing?”
Thanks to one of the boys becoming a student council president, Kim even had a chance to “flex some muscle” at the boy’s school as the president of the parents’ council, he chuckled. According to Kim, it was the first time that a teenage defector has ever become a student council president by winning a hotly contested election at a regular school. The hero, Han Jin-beom, has come to have a greater sense of responsibility since he became a student leader. This has, in turn, renewed Kim’s sense of mission.

The Gajok under Kim’s devoted care was a beehive of activity as the boys prepared for a concert this past autumn to mark their 10th anniversary as a family. They gave a successful performance at the Arirang Cine Center in Seoul on November 18–20.

The Road Taken
Kim never thought that he would be living this way. He came to his new calling by happenstance. In 2006, while working as a volunteer in a program to help recent defectors adjust to a new life in the South, he felt compelled to babysit a young defector boy he found home alone while the mother was away looking for a job. Kim was then dividing his time between a decent job at a publishing house and doing volunteer work at Hanawon, a facility run by the Unification Ministry where defectors undergo a resettlement program. One of the defectors informed him of her new address in Seoul. When he visited her apartment in Yangcheon District in western Seoul, he found a boy, a fourth grader, sleeping alone in darkness with the TV on. His mother had gone to another province to find a job, leaving the boy alone behind in this rented apartment provided by Hanawon.
Kim opened the refrigerator and found nothing to eat inside. His heart ached. A good cook himself, he went to a nearby grocery store to shop for food. He cooked a meal, which he ate with the boy. Suddenly, the boy began talking about his hometown back in the North. Then, he asked Kim to stay for the night with him. Kim accepted the invitation gladly.
Unable to leave the boy alone, Kim slept at the apartment a few more nights. Sometime later, the boy’s mother found a job in a distant province and had to stay near her workplace. Kim decided to live in the apartment with the boy. Eventually, he took charge of more and more parentless children that Hanawon sent to him. After moving around several rental units, he bought a house at the foot of Mt. Bugak in Seongbuk District, northern Seoul, which became a permanent shelter for a total of 10 teenage boys from the North.
Whenever a new boy arrived, Kim made careful efforts to help ease the youngster’s adaptation into South Korean society. For his young wards, blending in was a particular concern. With the boy’s consent, Kim discarded most of his old clothing and the odds and ends in his pockets. He then took the boy to a barbershop and bought him new clothes at the Dongdaemun shopping mall. These children are very sensitive about their clothing and physical appearance because they don’t want to stick out and be marginalized as defectors at school.

“Kim’s boys either have no relatives in South Korea or their parents are too busy eking out a living here to properly care for their children. Most of them are from remote areas in North Korea, including the provinces of North and South Hamgyong, and Ryanggang Province. Jeong Ju-yeong, a third grader who used to live with his grandmother, fled the North when he was six years old with the help of a missionary. The youngest boy in this house, he can’t remember his parents’ faces.
Since arriving in Seoul, the boys got to experience many firsts, like wearing their first school uniform, seeing the sea for the first time, and celebrating their first Christmas. The older boys still expect Santa Claus to come to their home with presents. They had their own birthday parties here for the first time. Kim treats each new arrival with a surprise party to celebrate his first birthday as a new member of the family. Before accepting a new boy, Kim calls a “family meeting” to seek their agreement.

A fine arts major in college, Kim tae-hoon is also art teacher to his boys, showcasing their works in an exhibition every two years to help them communicate with the world through their paintings and writings. In 2014, their exhibition of oil paintings was titled “Would You Listen to Our Story?”

Unusual Family, Overcoming Obstacles
It is no easy task to feed and take care of teenage boys. Kim spent all his savings, but soon faced limits. He had to move frequently and worried about how to make ends meet, as the number of boys he had to care for swelled. Then he came to hear about group homes, a kind of alternative family service, in which a caregiver lives together with parentless children to help them adapt to society. And he realized that it would be possible to ask for financial support from the government, civic organizations, and welfare foundations, or appeal to corporations with social responsibility programs. In 2009, he officially became the head of a group home for teen defectors and was thus qualified to request financial aid from concerned agencies and businesses.
Still, it is a daunting challenge for him, as well as his boys, to overcome the public’s prejudice and bigoted views toward defectors from North Korea.

He often felt disapproving stares of neighbors who didn’t like seeing an unmarried man living with many young boys. One day, police officers came to his house to check on a rumor that he was living with child panhandlers.
He also has to heal the wounded hearts of the boys who come home almost every day perturbed by hearing schoolmates talk disparagingly of North Koreans — that they go around in rags, and go to bed hungry; or by being excluded from regular student activities.
Yeom Ha-ryong, the boy who motivated Kim to take on this task in the first place, recalls, “I speak with a strong accent. So my South Korean friends used to make fun of me, calling me a ‘pinko.’ I didn’t know that such a word even exists in the South.” For Lee Eokcheol, who grew up in the family and is now a student in the Department of Nursing at Pukyong National University, the sense of not quite belonging still rankles: “I still hate it when people look at me with pity because I’m from the North.”
For Kim, stern disapproval from his own parents loomed large over his decision to pursue an early altruistic impulse as his lifework. It’s quite understandable that his parents never liked the idea of their eldest son taking care of total strangers and remaining unmarried. He had to keep out of touch with them for the first two years. “At first, I was worried very much that my mom might come and say hurtful words to the boys,” he said.
As it turned out, his mother and father are now his most stalwart supporters. On Lunar New Year’s Day in 2013, his parents received respectful traditional bows from the boys and allowed them to join a memorial rite for family ancestors, thus accepting them as their adopted grandsons. Since then, Kim and the boys have been visiting his parents’ home freely.
Fortunately, most of the boys are growing up in good physical health, never getting demoralized. Ha-ryong won the grand prize in a national volunteer contest for secondary school students. And he went on to represent South Korea in a world volunteer contest held in Washington, D.C. He is now a student majoring in sociology at Kyungpook National University. After serving as student council president, Jin-beom, now a high school senior, has already been admitted to the Department of Sports Leadership at Kwangwoon University under its early admissions program this year.
“Only one or two of every 10 teen defectors complete regular high school,” Kim notes. “Most others drop out, and then take the general equivalency diploma test or transfer to alternative schools for teen defectors. That’s why I’m so proud of my boys who have adapted well to regular schools and are growing up healthily.”

“We all will leave home sometime in the future. But we believe we are a family who will remain close to each other all our lives.”

Nurturing Altruism, Building New Dreams
Together with the boys, Kim traveled to an Akha hill tribe village in a remote region of Thailand three times to have them experience and cultivate a desire to help needy people. Their travels were funded mostly by Koscom, a securities information firm. Thailand is a transit country through which many young North Korean defectors pass before they reach South Korea. Lee Jin-cheol, who is now a freshman in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kyungpook National University, looks back: “I was afraid at first when I visited Thailand again, because we had earlier traversed the country for eight hours across the Mekong River by boat when we were fleeing.”
In 2012, while he was still in high school, Jin-cheol helped build a water tank, a parking lot, and the foundation for a public library building at the Akha village as a participant in a Global Village volunteer program. He worked so hard that one of the village elders asked him if he would marry his daughter. He revisited this village in summer 2013 and participated in building a clay house for foreign volunteers. The participants also painted an awesome mural on the village wall.

Kim spends quality time with his boys in their home’s wellappointed study.

“I had thought of the boys merely as young kids. But they worked real hard there. Furthermore, what they did was not simply volunteer work. I felt that they, as well as I, had grown spiritually through the experience,” Kim said.
On occasion, the boys travel to the rugged northeast near the border with North Korea to give a hand to Catholic priests and nuns of the Claretian Missionaries, which provide services for abandoned elderly, handicapped people, and children in Wontong, a needy rural community in Gangwon Province. After harvesting crops, threshing dry beans, and tilling the fields with tractors, they get to enjoy relaxing in the area’s natural surroundings. They even had a chance to take a dip in the East Sea, another first-time experience.
take a dip in the East Sea, another first-time experience. A fine arts major in college, Kim is carefully nurturing the boys’ artistic sensibility by teaching them and helping develop their aptitudes, showcasing their works by holding art exhibitions every two years. Disagreements arise and mistakes are made during the preparations for exhibitions. But their pride in each other’s gifts and the joy from working together collaboratively shines through each time.
The story of Kim and his boys has been shared with the world through a musical titled “Are We a Family, Too?” and “We’re Really Pissed Off,” a collection of the boys’ articles with their own illustrations. Their story has also been made into a documentary film titled “Our Family” (directed by Kim Do-hyun), which was screened at the Fifth DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in 2013.
Kim is preparing to take a big leap: to establish a social enterprise. He is planning a project to revive a regional economy, while helping defectors stand on their own, based in Cheorwon, an area adjacent to the DMZ in Gangwon Province. He plans to set aside a third of the revenue from the project to support other group homes for young defectors.
“We all will leave home sometime in the future. But we believe we are a family who will remain close to each other all our lives,” the boys said in unison. Kim Tae-hoon, their “Bachelor Mom,” believes that what he is doing now is part of preparations for the eventual unification of the Korean nation.

Kim Hak-soon Journalist; Visiting Professor, School of Media and Communication, Korea University
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer

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