Those who have read Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower will know about the Koreans who migrated to Mexico in 1905 as farm labourers, just before Korea became a Japanese protectorate. By the time their contracts were up, Japan was about to absorb Korea into their growing empire. Now stateless, some of the migrants stayed in Mexico; others found homes in the USA. 288 of them sailed to Cuba in 1921 in search of a better life on the sugar plantations, and their Korean Cuban descendants now number just over 1,000. Ten years ago Song Il-gon’s movie Dance of Time painted a portrait of the lives of today’s Coreanos. And now Korean American Joseph Juhn examines their history in more detail, focusing on the life of one of the most prominent Korean Cubans over the decades: Jeronimo Lim Kim (1926 – 2006).
Jeronimo’s father, Lim Cheon-taek, was a toddler when he arrived in Mexico with his single mother, and at the age of 18 made the move to Cuba, where Jeronomo was born five years later. Jeronimo (Korean name Lim Eun-jo) was an intelligent, hard-working lad, and while his father raised funds for the Korean independence movement he was the first Korean to go to law school in Cuba – where he met Fidel Castro. He ended up fighting for the Cuban revolution in the 1950s.
At the time of the revolution, some Koreans who had amassed a certain amount of wealth managed to escape to the USA. Koreans who stayed behind in Cuba were either committed to the revolution – such as Jeronimo himself – or did not have the motivation or the means to emigrate. Jeronimo ended up playing a role in the Castro administration, working alongside Che Guevara. Later, he became an intelligence operative. In the last decade of his life he found a new project, seeking to revitalise within the Korean Cuban community a sense of identity and pride in their Korean heritage.
The documentary arose out of a chance encounter between Joseph Juhn and a Korean Cuban taxi driver (who turned out to be Jeronimo’s daughter) when he was on a backpacker holiday to Cuba, and the documentary was filmed over the subsequent three years. The film is primarily about Jeronimo himself and the history of the Korean Cuban community, drawing on interviews with Jeronimo’s family members and other Coreanos. But the film also raises questions about identity and nationality, and touches on the problem of the division of the Korean peninsula, of divisions within the Korean diaspora and between that diaspora and Koreans in the homeland.
Some of these issues surfaced during the Q&A that the audience at the KCC enjoyed on Thursday night. An early working title for the film on Kickstarter was The Korean Che – a title which alienated conservative Korean Americans (for whom Che Guevara was a communist and a murderer) but equally was considered slightly presumptuous by Korean Cubans: no-one could be thought of as the equal of the revered Che. Juhn however related a gratifying moment when the screening of the finished documentary before an audience of more conservative Korean Americans was received with surprising warmth.
Among the Korean Cuban community there is only one Korea – no North and no South. But the reality is that the South Koreans have in more recent years been of greater assistance. Jeronimo received a frosty welcome from the DPRK embassy when he visited it, and their stand-offish attitude could be part of the reason why his attempt to set up an officially recognised Korean Cuban association did not receive approval from the Cuban authorities.
Jeronimo worked tirelessly in the last decade of his life to build solidarity among the Korean community. He managed to construct a memorial, unveiled on the 80th anniversary of the original landing. But in the end, according to Juhn, the recent force of the Korean wave – the power of BTS and Korean TV dramas – has done more to instil in younger Coreanos an interest in the language and culture of their ancestors’ homeland than anything Jeronimo could achieve. Nevertheless the documentary is a powerful and moving testament to the life of a hard-working and visionary member of a small part of the 8 million-strong Korean diaspora.
- In Search of Koreans in Cuba: A Tale of Jeronimo Lim – article by Joseph Juhn in Korea Expose, 27 March 2017
- Tracing Korean diaspora through unsung hero – Yoon Min-sik, Korea Herald, 3 April 2019