President Moon Jae-In presents an order of merit to the descendent of a Korean independence activist at the Center for Korean Studies in Hawaiʻi on September 22, 2021. [Image: courtesy of University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa’s Center for Korean Studies]

South Korean President Moon Jae-In honors Korean Diaspora Freedom Fighters at University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa’s Center for Korean Studies

Korea

On September 22, 2021, South Korean President Moon Jae-In visited the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa. President Moon stopped in Honolulu on his way back from the United Nations General Assembly in New York. While in Honolulu, in addition to visiting the Center for Korean Studies, he also went to the Hickam Airbase in the Indo-Pacific Command for the repatriation of South Korean soldiers’ remains killed during the Korean War.

At the Center for Korean Studies, President Moon posthumously awarded an order of merit (건국훈장 추서) to Kim Nodie and Ahn Chung Song, who fought for Korean independence from Japanese rule while living in Hawaiʻi. This event marked the first time a Korean President has awarded an order of merit to a Korean freedom fighter on foreign soil, and is the second time a South Korean president has visited the Center since 1981.

The Korean independence activists President Moon honored are part of a larger freedom-fighting Korean diaspora in Hawaiʻi, as documented by the Center for Korean Studies’ ongoing research project on Korean Immigration History and Diaspora Studies. In 1903, 102 Koreans moved to Hawaiʻi as the first Korean immigrants in the United States, where they helped raise funds to liberate Korea from Japanese rule. As of 2016, there are 47,713 Korean Americans living in Hawaiʻi.

The first awardee, Kim Nodie, immigrated to Hawaiʻi in 1905 with her family. In 1919, she delivered a speech about Korean independence at the first gathering of Koreans in the United States in Philadelphia, and she was the President of the Korean Ladies Relief Society. The second awardee, Ahn Chung Song, was born in Pyongyang and came to Hawaiʻi in 1919 after graduating from college in Korea. She educated overseas Koreans and led fundraisers for the independence movement in Korea. After liberation, she helped set up the South Korean government as a member of the United Korean Committee in America Mission. More detailed biographies of both women are available on the Center for Korean Studies website.

In his speech, President Moon mentioned the compassion he feels for the Korean community in Hawaiʻi. He recognized how Koreans in Hawaiʻi kept Korean culture and identity alive abroad when it was being erased in Korea during Japanese rule by establishing institutions like Hangul (Korean language) schools in Hawaiʻi. Overall, President Moon’s visit highlights the important, century-long relationship between Hawaiʻi and Korea.

Watch the full video of President Moon’s speech at the Center for Korean Studies in Korean, or read a transcript of his full remarks in English or Korean.

Kimery Lynch is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa with her MA in Asian Studies.