Maija Rhee Devine

Korean War refugee recounts how her life changed

06/30/2013   Published on Harold-Review, by Huey Freeman

SPRINGFIELD — For Maija Rhee Devine, a 7-year-old girl when North Korean forces invaded her home city, the Korean War became the happiest time of her life.

Six decades later, Devine told an audience at the Korean War National Museum about her experiences as a refugee who was liberated by the war from domestic oppression resulting from her not being a boy.

Devine, a former Lincoln Land Community College teacher, delivered a riveting lecture at the museum Saturday, June 22, after the writing of her recently published novel stirred up childhood memories.

“The Voices of Heaven” is based on the story of Devine’s family, which underwent a situation that was not unusual in pre-war Korea.

When the parents’ union failed to produce a boy, a mistress was invited into the household to correct the situation. A male child was the only means of support for people in their old age and their afterlife, according to Confucian tradition.

The little girl was repeatedly told she was the cause of the family’s trouble. If she had only been a boy, they wouldn’t be in that predicament.

While Seoul residents were hearing the war drums of their northern neighbors, a quieter battle was raging in the once-peaceful household.

“The struggle was against their own instincts for monogamy,” Devine said of her parents. “They were put into a polygamous situation.”

The struggle, which incapacitated the girl’s mother for several months, was suddenly overshadowed by Seoul’s takeover by communist troops. Devine and her mother fled the city with a sea of refugees, which were strafed by bullets from Soviet-built airplanes.

“My mother covered my eyes to keep me from seeing people collapsing in a pool of blood,” Devine recalled.

After a nightmarish three-day train ride in a windowless boxcar crammed with refugees, they arrived in the southeast corner of the country, which was heavily protected by U.S. and United Nations troops.

At a time when thousands of Korean children were orphaned, Devine enjoyed a period of freedom from verbal retribution for being born a female.

“I loved the Korean War period,” Devine said. “People were worrying so much about who was killed or maimed, nobody cared about if I was a girl or boy. That was heaven.”

The war also inspired her to leave her homeland. After a U.S. soldier put candies into her pocket, she dreamed of “going to the country where they came from.”

She earned a master’s degree at St. Louis University and married Michael Devine, who later served as the Illinois state historian and is now director of Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Mo. Maija Devine is now working on a book on Korean women who served as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II.|(217) 421-6985

Posted on: July 22nd, 2013 by Maija Rhee Devine

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