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Oral History Spotlight – Maija Devine

Maija Devine has an unenviable perspective on the Korean War. She was born in 1943 in Manchuria to Korean refugees who had fled the brutal occupation of their homeland by the Japanese. Her parents struggled to survive, especially after the birth of Maija and a twin brother. There was no way the couple could possibly afford to keep both infants, so in their desperation they gave Maija up to a friend who was returning to Korea. He in turn gave the infant Maija to his nephew and wife, a childless couple living in Seoul. Click here for audio clip.

The fact that Maija was adopted meant little to her new parents, for they could not have loved Maija more. But the family faced a crisis none-the-less. Since the couple could not conceived, there was no male heir to carry on the time-honored Confucian traditions. Maija’s adoptive father came under increasing pressure to either take a mistress or bring a woman into the home who could then bear him a son. Immersed as Maija’s new parents were in a Confucian society, their choice was pre-ordained; there must be a son to carry on the ancient traditions. Maija describes the patriarchal society she was born into this way. Click here for audio clip.

Maija then elaborated on why a son was so important in Korean society at that time. Click here for audio clip.

Maija’s adoptive parents were the product of an arranged marriage, but the love between them was undeniable. Still, the societal pressures on Maija’s father were unrelenting, and he reluctantly took a mistress and brought her into the household. Click here for audio clip. That decision proved to be a traumatic experience for everyone involved.

Then, on June 25th, 1950, history intervened when North Korea invaded the south, quickly occupying Seoul where Maija’s family lived. Life immediately changed. The occupiers soon forced everyone to attend mandatory meetings where they were indoctrinated into the communist way of life. Click here for audio clip.

The North Korean Army continued its advance south until it bottled up United Nations forces inside the Pusan Perimeter, located in the country’s southeast corner. To replenish their forces, the Communists began dragooning South Korean men of draftable age, which only added to the terrors Maija’s parents endured. Click here for audio clip.

By September, the growing coalition of U.N. forces led by the Americans were pushing the Communists north, and by the end of 1950 they approached the Yalu River and the border of China. But in late November the fortunes of war changed once again when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, veterans of the Chinese Civil War, poured into North Korea. By mid-January 1951 the Communists had once again occupied Seoul, but this time Maija’s family was not there. Like thousands of others, they fled the capital. Click here for audio clip.

While escaping Seoul, the women became separated from Maija’s father. She and her mother finally settling into a tenuous existence in Masan, South Korea, just west of Pusan. Click here for audio clip.

Once they settled into their new life at Masan, Maija’s five year old cousin also joined them. Surprisingly, the girls developed a unique and upbeat perspective on their lives as refugees. Click here for audio clip.

Maija was still living in Masan when the war ended in July 1953 with a tenuous armistice that is still in force today. She thanks the Americans and UN forces for the vibrancy and prosperity her home country now enjoys. Click here for audio clip.

In 1970, while teaching English at Seoul’s Soodo Women’s College, Maija met a young American Peace Corps volunteer named Michael Devine. By the end of the year the two were married, ready to begin a new life together – but that is a story for another day.

Maija wrote an award winning novel based on her life entitled The Voices of Heaven. You can also hear all of her incredible story at the ALPL oral history website, at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.