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A Refuge for Korean War Brides, in Rural Missouri 

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ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK

Methodist pastor Minji Stark makes breakfast and prays each morning with five Korean women who live at a home near Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

She works mainly with other women to provide assistance because "women together making peace. Men together making war," she says, laughing.

She would know.

Stark, who is from Seoul, South Korea, met her husband in 1977 while he was serving in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in her country. She was working on the base, and they started talking while he was waiting to get picked up.

"He was a good Christian man. We would go together to church," Stark, now 69, says.

They married in Korea, then moved to Augusta, Georgia, in 1979. From there, they went to military bases in San Jose, California, and then Misawa, Japan. That's where Stark started attending a Baptist church and Bible study classes and became a born-again Christian.

In 1986, the couple moved to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. A year later, when her husband left the military, they moved to St. Louis. She and her husband had two children and now enjoy five grandchildren.

But Stark admits that she was nervous about getting involved with an American man. Many marriages between Korean women and U.S. soldiers ended badly.

According to some estimates, 100,000 marriages between Korean women and American soldiers have taken place since the U.S. started occupying Korea in 1945. The divorce rate? Possibly as high as 80 percent, according to Katharine Moon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asian Studies and the author of Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations.

The marriages ended for a variety of reasons: "language and cultural barriers, American racism, unfamiliarity with Korean customs and abuse," Moon says. Often, the women were then left to navigate life in the United States on their own with limited English proficiency.

And so for the last few decades, Stark has driven across the country to pick up Korean-born women from hospitals and homeless shelters in Colorado, Louisiana and New York, and then drive them back to St. Louis, where her organization provides them with food and a place to stay.

Her ultimate goal for some time now has been to move the women out to a 112-acre property in Robertsville, Missouri, just past Pacific on Highway 44. There, she envisions a bucolic life: The women can grow and sell organic vegetables and "get closer to nature," she says.

She wants to help the women find a purpose so they can "serve somebody, not just having someone serve them," and to build "hope in Christ."

She calls it Peace Village.

Stark's organization, the National Association of Intercultural Family Mission, has helped Korean women throughout the United States with housing, jobs, food, translation and even funeral services. In the St. Louis area, Stark has provided housing for more than a dozen women.

The organization achieved non-profit status in 1999 and maintains a skeleton framework. Records show no paid staffers and no highly paid consultants. The money that comes in — $213,051 in 2014, the most recent year its tax returns are available — goes almost entirely to help house and support Korean-born women who find themselves in the U.S. and in need.

The women who Stark has helped could not or were not able to share their stories, either because of a language barrier or because of past trauma, Stark says.

A majority of the marriages between U.S. soldiers and Korean women from 1950 to 1980 started in the bars and brothels that surrounded the military bases, according to Moon and other scholars.

click to enlarge Minji Stark shows off a plan for Peace Village. - PHOTO BY ERIC BERGER
  • PHOTO BY ERIC BERGER
  • Minji Stark shows off a plan for Peace Village.

The United States military and the South Korean government collaborated to regulate prostitution to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. South Korean officials also encouraged the practice in order to keep soldiers happy because they feared the American military would otherwise leave, abandoning the democratic country to its communist neighbor to the north.

Meanwhile, the women who went to work in camp towns saw marrying soldiers as a way to "live the American dream," says Moon.

But in Korea, there was a "very puritanical, moralistic and very judgmental society," Moon says. The women who had been sex workers and then married outside of their Korean ethnic group were seen as "double-pariahs."

Many of the women were abused by pimps or bar owners in Korea and then continued to face physical and emotional abuse in their marriages. In one case, an American man did not allow his wife "to eat kimchi in the house. She was not allowed to eat her most important native food," Moon says.

"I think there is this mindset among the American G.I.s who went to brothels and clubs that these women were disposable, and some of that mentality may have carried over into the more serious relationships," says Grace Cho, the author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and The Forgotten War, which includes her own family history.

If the marriages broke apart, the women had trouble finding help in the Korean community because of the assumption that they had been prostitutes, or at the very least a "traitor for sleeping with Americans," says Cho.

As such, women in the Korean War generation are often ashamed of their past.

Cho, who has a Korean mother and an American father, knows little about how her parents met. Her father was in the Merchant Marines; her mother worked at a naval base in Korea. They only discussed their relationship "in the vaguest terms. There was never any concrete narrative."

"It's not talked about in America, and it's not talked about in Korea because it's considered something shameful," she says.

Once ostracized by both Americans and Koreans, some of the women ended up homeless, which added another layer of shame and secrecy.

"Koreans still don't have a concept of homelessness; it's just, you're a beggar," says Moon.

Moon, who is Korean, has never been to Peace Village, but she says that within the Korean Christian community, such a ministry is unique.

"Even though you are seeing a church that tends to them, most of them have been shunned by Korean Americans in the United States," she says.

click to enlarge The women gather for a meal at the property in Robertsville. - PHOTO BY ERIC BERGER
  • PHOTO BY ERIC BERGER
  • The women gather for a meal at the property in Robertsville.

In 1991, Kim Young Sup, a homeless Korean woman who had married an American man and then divorced, died after being run over by a salt truck in Chicago. When news reached Stark and other Christian Korean religious leaders, they started their mission to help women like Sup.

Stark connected with Korean women who were living in shelters in Chicago, Denver and New York. Stark modeled the organization after the Rainbow Center, a women's shelter in New York for abused or homeless Asian women who had been married to U.S. serviceman. When it closed briefly because of financial troubles in 2000, Stark drove sixteen hours each way to New York and brought one of the women back to St. Louis.

She initially provided housing for the women at a parsonage associated with Marvin Park United Methodist Church in Breckenridge Hills, but when the congregation moved to another location as part of a merger in 2012, the church sold the property. Stark's organization then rented a small brick three-bedroom house in the middle of a quiet neighborhood near the airport for the women.

Over the years, Intercultural Family Mission has helped some women find jobs so they can live independently. Others have gotten married or moved in with relatives.

There have also been some hurdles. The organization bought the acreage in Robertsville in 1999, but six years later, a house on the property burned down after a stove overheated. The accident delayed plans for bringing the Korean women to the site.

The compound features a sanctuary, dining area and meeting space, and the nonprofit plans to start constructing living quarters for the women in the next couple months. Eventually, the organization would like to build more residences for people who want to retire at the property.

The National Association of Intercultural Family Mission still hopes to raise $200,000 for the project. The organization also has branches in other cities, where volunteers help women and also raise funds, holding golf tournaments and selling potstickers and kimchi from their churches periodically throughout the year.

On weekends, Stark drives the women from the house in St. Louis county to Robertsville, where they pray and eat a spread of traditional Korean food, including kimchi, dumplings, noodle dishes and soup.

At a lunch in October, the former military brides, who are now all over 60, sat silently eating while Stark, who had just led worship services, helped with the food and talked with her congregants.

Stark avoids taking credit for building the organization, but other stakeholders say she is the driving force.

"She is 100 percent sacrifice," says Heng Shin Hill, who lives in Springfield, Missouri, and has worked with Stark to help Korean women who live in southern Missouri.

Hill, 70, herself married a U.S. serviceman serving in Korea while she was in school. She describes herself as "private. I'm kind of bashful." And she says she also does not ask the women she helps about their own stories.

"We don't ask about the past too much because now is important, not in the past," says Hill, whose husband died in 2001.

The women help one another because whether or not the marriages ended in divorce, they know the difficulties involved with intercultural marriages, says Kim Crandall, a Korean who married an American and came to the United States in the early '80s.

"The mixed marriage is not that easy," says Crandall, who still lives with her husband in Clarksville, Tennessee. "That's why we are gathering together now as much as we can."

There are several hundred women involved with the organization around the country, and Crandall suggests that most of them want to go back to Korea.

"But that's impossible," she says.

The members of the organization gather once annually for three nights in Robertsville. Crandall, 58, says staying at the property, with its vegetables and surrounding forest, is like being in a village in her homeland.

Once her husband dies, she said she plans to move to Robertsville, where she will "stay with my sisters."

By the end of this year, Stark hopes to move the women who live near the airport to Peace Village.

At the home in St. Louis County, the women again sit silently one morning in November before breakfast. They hardly move until one of them agrees to have her picture taken, saying, "Make it pretty." The rest erupt in laughter.

Faith binds them together.

"I am healthy, so I can do something for them. Christian life is caring for another, not only yourself," Stark says.

"Worship is good for me," one of the women agrees.

Now 64, the woman first came to New York in 1979 from Seoul. Years later, Stark drove her from a women's shelter to St. Louis.

"I like St. Louis better than New York." she says. "New York is so many people."

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