By Eunice Kim, Program Administrator, Master of Development Practice, UC Berkeley
My grandmother was born in the Korean Peninsula in 1925 in a region that we now know as North Korea. However, since it was annexed to Japan in 1910, her birthplace at the time was essentially a Japanese-occupied territory. Nevertheless, she grew up in relative affluence and her early life was comfortable, as she came from a wealthy family of bankers.
She never really went delved into the details but one day, soldiers forced their way into her village and onto their land, and in their wake they left a community destroyed, a family fortune plundered, and her mother dead. Only a few months later at the age of 14, her father married her off to my grandfather, who was at the time, a poor, barefoot boy from a nearby town; a ludicrous arrangement under normal circumstances, but rumors were swirling of Japanese soldiers kidnapping unmarried girls for detainment as ‘comfort women’, so her father hastily arranged the marriage out of necessity and died shortly afterwards (suicide?). My grandparents, however, would remain married for 65 years until my grandmother’s death in 2005.
I’m sure at the time, she could not imagine the things that would come to fruition: the onset of the Korean War, the escape to South Korea on foot burying her infant daughter along the way, her settlement in South Korea and finally her immigration to the United States in the 1980’s, her last great Adventure, a place of relative calm and peace where she would dote on her granddaughter, Eunice, whose name meant ‘victorious’.
Only five years after the birth of my grandmother, across the globe, another baby girl, Irma Adelman, would be born in Cernowitz, Romania. She would be raised by her father, a Zionist businessman, her law-student mother and a superfluity of French Catholic nuns who would later foster her love of French literature. Like my own great-grandfather, Irma’s father predicted imminent danger, which would manifest later as World War II and the Holocaust. Thankfully, his foresight allowed Irma and her family to immigrate to Palestine, or modern-day Israel, in 1939. There, Irma would spend the rest of her childhood, where she would also go on to enlist in the army and transmit Morse code during the war. Afterwards, she came to the United States for college and graduate school. In 1955, she would graduate from UC Berkeley with a PhD, starting her career as an economist. Never forgetting the plight of those less fortunate than herself, and years before Amartya Sen’s ‘Commodities and Capabilities’ garnered praise in development circles for his ‘capability approach’, Irma Adelman would advocate for “the creation of the social and material conditions for the realization of human potential by all.” In the 1970’s she would be sent by USAID to a South Korea, to assist the Park government in the development of the Second-Five-Year-Plan, where she was awarded the highest honor possible by a foreigner, the Order of the Bronze Tower, by President Park.
Two lives, distinct and distant, starting with war and tragedy, converged as I sat in Irma’s living room in Berkeley, California, during an interview session for a retrospective pieceon her life and illustrious career for the Annual Review of Resource Economics.
My boss, Professor David Zilberman, who conducted the interviews, asked her about her first impressions of Korea at the time.
“At the time, South Korea was considered as the hellhole of foreign assistance and as a bottomless pit for money and assistance. I was totally ignorant of this, and when I got there, what I saw was a population which was very highly motivated—walking fast on the street, no stooping, you know…”
I remember this phrase particularly piqued my interest. To think, Irma may have even passed my grandmother on the street. She was a very fast walker, you see.
While South Korea now boasts one of the most dynamic economies of East Asia, when Irma made her first trip to South Korea in the 70’s, the country had been ravaged by war, with the equivalent per capita income of modern-day Chad. Many American analysts called it the ‘black-hole’ of development aid and proclaimed it was too weak to succeed. This god-forsaken place was the Korea that my grandmother knew, but in the short span of fifty years, historians would call South Korea’s economic progress as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’, in large part due to Irma’s contributions. Her insight, technical knowledge, dedication to poverty alleviation and more importantly, her patience and compassion, would be instrumental in lifting the Korean people out of dire poverty and despair. My grandmother, too, would contribute to South Korea’s success, albeit on a smaller-scale. Within two generations, her granddaughter would go on to attend the University of Chicago and interview an eminent economist, in no small part due to her instilling in me the value of hard work and a good education. She would tell me as far back as I can remember, ‘Grab ahold of that education, little girl. Grab it and don’t let go’.
I didn’t, Grandma. And I won’t.
I would like to conclude this post by noting that this experience has allowed me see the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills come to life:
“We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some historical sequence. By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of its history, even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove” – The Sociological Imagination (1959)
I would like to thank Professor David Zilberman for allowing me to take part in this special opportunity.
This blogpost is dedicated my grandmother, Professor Irma Adelman and all of the unnamed women before me that by historical push and shove have paved the way for me to live out my own, very fortunate biography.