Korean Cubans grapple with the legacy of a divided country

NEW YORK, Jan. 19 (UPI) — When Joseph Juhn first traveled to Cuba in 2015, the driver who was waiting for him at the airport in Havana expected to pick up a Canadian national.

Juhn, a Korean American lawyer who was flying in from Montreal, was also taken by surprise by the woman in the driver’s seat: a fourth-generation Korean Cuban.

Patricia Lim was the descendant of Korean indentured laborers who first migrated to Mexico, then to Cuba in 1921.

Juhn, who is currently producing a documentary on the Korean diaspora in Cuba, said Thursday he learned the experiences of Korean Cubans have intertwined with the history of a divided peninsula.

Not only did Korean Cubans take to the streets of Havana to celebrate Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, they were deeply affected by the division of the peninsula.

“While we were still enjoying our emancipation, something happened that should have never happened,” wrote Patricia’s grandfather Lim Cheon-taek, in a letter he wrote to his children.

Juhn, who reads the letter in the film’s voice-over, interviewed dozens of Korean Cubans, including Lim’s many descendants, some of who recently visited South Korea where Lim is honored and buried at the Korean National Cemetery in Daejeon.

Despite his poverty and a family of nine children, Lim sent money to support Korea’s independence movement.

But Lim’s legacy is only a part of the story of Korean Cubans, and his son Jeronimo Lim is at the center of Juhn’s film.

Jeronimo, who had passed away by the time Juhn encountered his daughter Patricia in a Cuban taxicab, was the first Korean to attain a university education in Cuba, and was a law school classmate of Fidel Castro.

The Korean Cuban who supported his country’s revolution later worked with Che Guevara, and in his later years, fostered a sense of community among the Koreans in the island nation, Juhn said.

Jeronimo’s approach to empowering a community by encouraging the embrace of heritage reflects the influence of his Korean-born father, who dedicated his life to keeping the memory of the Korean language alive for his family, even if it meant venturing to the North Korean embassy for material from the fatherland.

“North Korea is a huge part of the larger narrative” of Korean Cubans, Juhn told UPI, adding Cuba’s allegiance changed after the revolution in 1959.

“North Korea in fact became one of Cuba’s strongest allies, along with the Soviet Union.”

Lim Cheon-taek, who may not have supported the leadership of Kim Il Sung, would take trips to the North Korean embassy in Havana to collect literature, including propaganda, so his children could have a chance to practice their reading skills.

“The only thing they recollect reading is about Juche,” Juhn said, referring to the North Korean state philosophy of self-reliance.

“They knew it was propaganda, but that was their only source.”

That may no longer be the case in the Caribbean’s largest island nation.

According to Juhn, South Korean television dramas are a big hit among Cubans.

South Korea’s success in entertainment has stoked the pride of Korean Cubans, who are now a fifth-generation community.

“A couple years ago, Cuban public channel broadcasted Korean dramas, and that swept over the country,” Juhn said.

“The running joke is that the second most popular person in Cuba after Fidel Castro is Lee Min-ho,” a top-billed South Korean actor.

The story of Korean Cubans and their hybrid identity is an important one for countries like the United States and the debate over immigration.

Lim and his compatriots struggled with discrimination as low-status laborers, but over time his descendants became integral members of new societies.

“Any immigrants coming in to the United States carry with them their own sense of identity from their homeland,” Juhn said. “When that mingles with that of the American values and ideals I think even a greater culture can come about, a greater identity can emerge.”

“I hope policymakers recognize that.”

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