*** Published Tuesday, Oct. 19 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Forty-one South Korean schoolchildren, dressed in matching pink plaid uniforms, sang "God Bless America" and "It's a Small World" in a Bristol gymnasium Monday on their first trip to the United States. They crooned the words in English, though only one of them knew what the words meant.
"We came to say thank you to the American people for what they did in Korea," said Billy Kim, the evangelical minister who put the group together. As millions starve under communist rule in their neighboring North Korea, Kim said, the schoolchildren, ages 7 to 13, came to thank American veterans of the Korean War.
More than 54,000 American troops died in the Korean war, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Haram Kim, the only English speaker among the children, is usually 13 years old. But for the past five days, since her choir landed in Washington, D.C., Haram has been 12 all over again.
At home in Seoul, they start counting age at conception. In planning her trip, she raised $3,000 to travel 7,000 miles, then calculated her age in American.
"I have so many dreams," she said Monday, dressed in a pink sweater vest and a pink plaid shirt and bow-tie. She wants to go to an American university, then become a teacher. Or maybe a lawyer. Perhaps a singer.
The 11 boys and 29 other girls in her choir were chosen by Kim from the choirs of his nine radio stations across the city. When President George W. Bush visited their country in June, the group sang for him "The Yellow Rose of Texas."
"He was delighted," Billy Kim said. The minister is described by his friends as the "Billy Graham of South Korea."
"He's better known in Korea than Billy Graham is in America," said Paul Johnson, a long-time friend and follower from Birmingham, Mich.
Kim was a houseboy during the Korea war and an American sergeant took a liking to him and brought him home to the United States. The sergeant paid for his education at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, S.C. Then Kim went back to South Korea and, in 1973, shortly after his return, he translated for Graham before more than a million people. Now his church has 15,000 members.
The children, who will perform for the city's noon Rotary club then host a full concert at 7:30 p.m. at Virginia Intermont College, are staying at the Blessing family farm in Bristol, Tenn. On Monday night, they ate cheeseburgers and sushi off red and white checkered table clothes, then lined up in rows – from the shortest kid to the tallest one – to give their hosts a sneak preview. They twirl and smile, all in sweater vests and bow-ties, then plunk pots and pans and shake tambourines to the tune of Dem Bones and Amazing Grace.
Since last Thursday, they've sang and danced for thousands at embassies and Christian academies in D.C., Maryland and Lynchburg, Va. They've been applauded with standing ovations. At 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, their bus will leave for South Carolina.
The children are all from a city of skyscrapers and 12 million people.
"I like the beautiful nature here," Haram Kim said of her trip. "There's no trash. It's so beautiful."