Oral Histories

Interview of Kil Joo Lee

Vocalist, choral director, and activist for the reunification of North and South Korea.
Korean Americans in Los Angeles after 1965
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Vocalist, choral director, and activist for the reunification of North and South Korea.
Cline, Alex
Lee, Kil Joo
Persons Present:
Lee and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Lee's home in La Crescenta, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the offices of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research; musician.Cline prepared for the interview by conducting extensive research on the history of Korea and of Korean Americans, particularly Korean immigrants who settled in the Los Angeles area, via books, periodicals, and online sources. He also consulted with advisors who are closely connected with L.A.’s Korean American community and who are acutely knowledgeable about it, including attorney and activist Angela E. Oh and UCLA associate professor of anthropology and faculty member of UCLA’s Center for Korean Studies Kyeyoung Park. Assistance from series interviewees such as Johng Ho Song and John Lim also frequently proved invaluable.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Lee was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and make corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
6 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
This series includes full-life histories of a number of prominent Korean Americans who represent their community’s tremendous expansion during the period after federal anti-Asian immigration laws were repealed in 1965. The series focuses on the remarkable growth of the Korean American community in Los Angeles; that community’s impact on the history, economy, and culture of the city; and the development and evolution of Koreatown, the only such officially designated community in any city in the world. While concentrating largely on Korean immigrants who are part of the so-called 1.5 generation, or immigrants who relocated to the United States from South Korea while still relatively young, the series also includes influential members of the L.A. area’s Korean community who are first- and second-generation Korean Americans.
Birth in Manchuria, where father was escaping the Japanese occupation—Family background—Father’s training in Buddhism and medicine—Childhood and education in Seoul during the Korean War—Effects of war activity on Kil-Joo’s life growing up--Kil-Joo studies music and becomes a vocalist and choral director—After studies at Seoul National University, Kil-Joo works as the director of an orphanage choir at U.S. Army church, where she meets army dentist Steven Kurumada—Marriage controversy between the two families—Kurumada’s family background--Marries Kurumada and moves with him to the United States in 1970.
More on Kil-Joo’s and her husband’s family background—Moves to Los Angeles, where Kurumada sets up his dental practice—Her early days in Los Angeles in the early 1970s—The Kurumadas have two children—Begins singing for Korean churches in the Los Angeles area—The family moves to La Crescenta in 1976—The La Crescenta neighborhood during the 1970s and at present—Kil-Joo experiences racial discrimination in the area during the 1970s—Beginnings of Kil-Joo’s political engagement in 1980—Insists her children show resepect for their elders—Her daughter’s marriage—Korean immigrants who attended Kil’s church in Santa Monica—Beginnings of the Korean Resource Center (KRC)—Preparing classes at the KRC for young Korean immigrants.
More on the establishment of the KRC—Influential individuals in the Korean community who were in favor of the unification of North and South Korea—Kil-Joo travels to North Korea in 1989 to participate in the spring festival there as a musical representative of the Korean community in the United States—Breaks ground by singing only songs dealing with reunification at the festival—Kil-Joo’s impressions of North Korea and its people—Just misses the escalation of the Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing, China, while there waiting to travel to North Korea—Separating the deeds of leaders and politicians from one’s care for the people they represent--Chilling effect experienced by Kil-Joo due to the perception of her activities as being pro-communist—General political attitude of the Korean American community.
A festival of South and North Korean music is held in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Ebell Theater—More on the spring festival trip to North Korea—The Korean American Coalition for Culture and Art is established after the trip to North Korea—The coalition publishes its first volume of South Korean poems to be set by North Korean composers to create music aimed at reunification—Play by Byung-Ok Cho is performed at Kil-Joo’s church—A café is created to provide an outlet for musicians, artists, and writers to have a forum for their work and to encourage community—Second edition of poems is published in 1992—First ever spring festival combining both North and South Korean performers takes place in North Korea, with Kil-Joo participating—Third edition of poems is confiscated by authorities in South Korea, thwarting its publication—Coalition abandons its activities after the new regime comes to power in South Korea in 1992—Kil-Joo’s return trip to South Korea—Impressions of South Korea upon returning there—Kil-Joo’s mother moves to Los Angeles during the 1970s—Hatred of many Korean Americans toward North Koreans—Prospects for reunification—Korean Americans’ perception of their homeland—The need for compassion to help solve the world’s conflicts and to heal its suffering.