By Eleanor Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
Kwak immigrated to Seattle from South Korea in 1973. In Korea, he participated in the pro-democracy movement against a totalitarian regime, first as a student and then as a professor of education at Korea University. He was primarily a speechwriter, as he did not like to speak in front of crowds himself. However, he was able to articulate ideas for others. Eventually, his activities brought him to the attention of the government, and he was asked to desist.
For John Kwak’s instrumental work in shaping and uniting the local Korean American community, he has been named one of Northwest Asian Weekly’s Asian American Pioneers.
When asked if he felt pressured to leave Korea, Kwak would say only that “a lot of people came here [to the States] at the time.” His daughter Doni Kwak added that he is still reluctant, after all these years, to speak forthrightly about that time for fear of reprisal.
Kwak came over with his wife, a pharmacist, and his two daughters, Doni and Jenny. Initially, Kwak’s father advised him to leave the country alone, and return to his family once “things blew over,” but Kwak refused to separate his family, even temporarily. His own father had left his family in North Korea for his trading business, and then been detained in South Korea during the war. He was forced to settle permanently in South Korea, and he eventually remarried.
Kwak was 10 years old when his mother set him on the road alone to find his father. That would be the last time he was with his mother, until he returned to North Korea in 1998 as one of a select few granted permission to tour North Korea. He was able to spend one day with her — a hard-won privilege.
Upon arrival in the United States, he took “any kind of work,” beginning with custodial work. He eventually opened a small grocery in Magnolia, the kind of Korean grocery so ubiquitous in Seattle now. But at the time, Kwak knew of only three Koreans in the area running a grocery.
In fact, Doni can recall only five Korean families in the area. Seattle was so devoid of Koreans then that when she first entered the Seattle Public School system, they placed her in a summer ESL program. “But it was a Chinese school,” she said, laughing. “I was there a week before they realized!”
Kwak eventually bought a couple of motels on Aurora. He is in the process of selling one, but the remaining one is the oldest motel on Aurora. “It’s not a landmark, but it’s still a historical building,” he said. He’s been advised to expand, to add a second story, but he refuses, wanting to preserve the historical aspect of the building. “People might not understand why I have [these old motels]. They don’t look nice, but they’re important.”
Kwak is 71 years old, but appears 10, if not 20, years younger. He credits his health to having owned his own businesses and not gone into welding, as so many Koreans did who immigrated around the same time he did.
His daughter qualified that he has slowed down a bit since suffering a heart attack back in December, “playing soccer.” But he still requires only four hours of sleep a day. Kwak says he is retired, yet mentioned so many various activities and organizations he participates in.
When asked for clarification, Doni said, “I guess he’s semi-retired.”
Since first arriving in Seattle, Kwak has volunteered his time and energy with various organizations and community projects. One of Kwak’s first projects for the Korean American association was to compile a directory for the Korean community in Washington state.
For a year, Kwak traveled and collected contacts, canvassing not just Seattle and Tacoma, but visiting Vancouver and Spokane.
He was also on the 1988 Seoul Olympic Committee. He said that while there were many such committees across the country, the Seattle one was the only one to have both whites and Korean Americans working together to support Seoul.
Kwak said he is proud of the Korean American community because “no one has helped them. They have done everything on their own.”
Another thing he is especially proud of is how Korean Americans try to help those less fortunate in the community. “As people become prosperous, they share. In the future, I wish for more of this.” He sits on the board of the Emergency Fund, set up by the Korean American Association, which collects donations and then extends funds to those in need. And the recipients need not be Korean, Kwak clarified. The fund seeks out anyone in the community who has fallen on hard times, especially around the holidays.
Kwak said he was very proud of this spirit of community generosity. However, he feels there is much more that Korean Americans can do.
As an example, he pointed to the obsession with golf. Korean Americans have especially taken to the sport, in part because golf is an activity accessible only to the very elite in Korea, Kwak observed. “But here, anyone can play.” And many do, spending all their free time and money on the hobby. “I support recreation. I’m not saying golf is bad. But I wish people wouldn’t spend so much of their money on golf. I wish they would put some of that money in the community.”
Kwak is very modest about his accomplishments. In fact, he has not yet told his wife about the Pioneer award. He said that he had not even wanted to accept the award, so humbled was he to be in the company of past recipients like state Sen. Paull Shin, but friends insisted.
He reiterates that any success he has had is due to the help of others and extraordinary luck. He was lucky that a dean intervened on his behalf for his American visa, as he had been blacklisted. He was lucky that Seattle had a professional training program for immigrants that had just opened when he arrived.
“I’m very grateful to Seattle, to Washington state. I don’t think I would have had so much support in New York or L.A. And not just Korean Americans — I’m grateful to the Japanese and Chinese communities for paving the way. Their struggles helped pave the way.” (end)
John Kwak is one of Northwest Asian Weekly’s Pioneers in Social Entrepreneurship. He and other social entrepreneurs will be honored at an awards ceremony on Oct. 15 at China Harbor Restaurant.
Northwest Asian Weekly’s Pioneer Awards is an annual event that celebrates the achievements of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans who have served as trailblazers in their local community.
Eleanor Lee can be reached at email@example.com.