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Descendants of local Korean activist Chun Yik Sur attend his commendation ceremony. (Second from left), granddaughter Lumiel Kim-Hammerich, three grandsons and one great granddaughter. (Photo courtesy: Lumiel Kim-Hammerich)

Seri Luangphinith has spent years conducting extensive research into the history of Korean immigrants to Hawaiʻi Island. This year, the South Korea Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs appointed the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo English professor to a special committee tasked to help identify descendants of Korean independence activists. The appointment to the committee is for one year.

Seri Luangphinith
Seri Luangphinith

“My job is to track down living descendants of independence activists who have been posthumously awarded citations by the government of South Korea,” said Luangphinith. “I was asked to help, given my research of Korean history on the Big Island.”

Luangphinith has already found the family of Chun Yik Sur, an important Korean activist on Hawaiʻi Island who was part of the organization called 대한인국민회 which translates to Korean People’s Association. Chun led the organization’s Papaʻaloa chapter and then became the General Secretary for East Hawaiʻi. He eventually headed the Lānaʻi district and was active through the 1930s.

The connection to the family was made through Luangphinith identifying and tracking down one of Chun’s descendants, granddaughter, Lumiel Kim-Hammerich. She was surprised to learn that her grandfather was being awarded a Presidential Medal of Commendation by South Korea’s President for his activism toward Korean independence.

“The family had no idea their grandfather was such an important figure,” said Luangphinith. “Just so happens he was on the Big Island doing this work in Papaʻaloa and Hilo.”

Mother and daughter with a certificate in front of a grave
Lumiel Kim-Hammerich (right) and her daughter visit the grave of their ancestor Chun Yik Sur. (Photo courtesy: Lumiel Kim-Hammerich)

On September 16, consul dignitaries presented Kim-Hammerich and her family with a medal at the Korean Consulate in Honolulu. The ceremony is the first in Hawaiʻi to posthumously award a presidential medal to the descendants of an independence activist. It preceded an award ceremony on September 22 on the steps of UH Mānoa’s Center for Korean Studies when South Korean President Moon Jae-in and UH leaders paid tribute to Chung Song Lee Ahn (1895–1989) and Nodie Kimhaekim Sohn, widely known as Nodie Kim (1898–1972) who immigrated to Hawaiʻi as revered “women patriots” and played monumental roles in the Korean independence movement.

In 2018, Luanphinith published some of her research in, The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island, a book unveiling past mysteries about the island’s Korean immigrants.

She is currently working on tracking down more families with ties to Hawaiʻi Island. “Who knew we played such a pivotal role in Korean independence,” she said.

—by Susan Enright

For more, go to UH Hilo Stories.

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