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Coming to the “cave of the tiger” leads man to the home of the BruinsJin Park (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)

Coming to the “cave of the tiger” leads man to the home of the Bruins

U.S. Army Major Jin Park left home at 14 determined to find success in the United States. He will soon graduate from UCLA with a master's degree in East Asian studies, which he will use in his new assignment as a security assistance officer at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

By Rebecca Kendall
Director of Communications

It’s been nearly 22 years since Jin Park boarded a plane from Seoul destined for his new life in the United States.

Unsure of what would await him or how things would unfold, Park knew one thing for certain: if he wanted to find success and live the life he wanted for himself, he was going to have to take some risks.

These risks have paid off for the 43-year-old UCLA student and U.S. Army major, who is set to graduate with a master’s degree in East Asian Studies with a focus on Korea on June 16. UCLA's master's degree in East Asian studies enables students to develop a broad understanding of an individual East Asian culture or to engage in comparative study of two or more East Asian cultures. It is one of four graduate and nine undergraduate interdepartmental programs offered by the UCLA International Institute.

“UCLA is known to have one of the best universities for Korean studies, so naturally I was drawn here,” says Park, who will use his Bruin education in his upcoming role as a security assistance officer at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, a position he is excited to perform after being recently selected to train to be a foreign area officer for Korea and Japan. As a security assistance officer, he will be involved with developing military training exercises and serve as a liaison between the U.S. Army and the Korean Ministry of Defense.

Language acquisition, in-country training and “civilian schooling” related to ones’ specialty area are among the requirements. At UCLA, Park, a fluent Koran speaker, learned to read, write and speak Japanese and studied topics that he believes will be strategically helpful to him as he progresses in his career, including U.S. nuclear policy toward North Korea, the history and current influence of Christianity in Korea, and the ways in which Chinese modern history is intertwined with those of Korea and Japan.

“One thing I know is that I learned things that I’d never been exposed to before,” says Park, adding that he might eventually pursue a PhD. “I am very appreciative and I’ve learned how much there is to know. It gives me so much more to think about.”

Graduating from UCLA is something that brings him great pride. It’s also something that he never imagined possible growing up rural South Korea.

As one of five children born in a particularly poor region of the country, Park vividly recalls walking five miles to and from school each day, picking vegetables from fields along the way, if there were any, to sustain himself for the day. “I never brought a lunch with me from home," he says. "It wasn’t that my parents didn’t love me. There was just no food.”

His school days were filled with learning, while his nights were occupied with mounting household chores and responsibilities. As he grew older, he became unsatisfied with his surroundings, fearing he would end up living in poverty forever. Admittedly, he started to rebel - much to the disappointment and fury of his family. 

“As a young child, I wanted to do so many things. I had ambition to study hard and become a general in the military or the CEO of a big company or a diplomat. I just wanted to be somebody.”

He quit school and ran away from home at 14, to start his new life in Seoul. There, he worked various odd jobs, including his first job at a Chinese restaurant where he was compensated with free meals, rather than a paycheck. “I was so young that they didn’t have to pay me,” he says. “But I ate very well.”

Park spent three years in Seoul before returning home for a short visit to see his family. One year later, his youngest brother, who was just 9 years old, was killed during a hurricane that ravaged the area.

“He was the smartest one of my brothers and sister,” says Park, recalling his final conversation with his brother. The boy had asked Park to play with him, but Park told him that he was too busy and that he would play with him later. “Later never came,” says Park. “His death made me think hard about what I wanted for my life. It was a turning point for me. I wanted to do something right, to accomplish something I could be proud of. I also wanted to live life for my brother. If that meant I worked harder and slept less, that was ok.”

Park continued to work various jobs and spent what little spare time he had studying. Within a couple of years, he had completed his middle and high school equivalency requirements. But that wasn’t enough. He knew that if he wanted to be successful, in his own terms, he would need to go to college. Better yet, he thought he would try to attend college in the United States.

“If you want to catch a tiger, you go to the cave where the tiger lives.”

He contacted a local university and made arrangements to come to the U.S. through a study abroad program. He boarded a plane destined for Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, in 1990, where he studied communication and radio. This proved to be a struggle for Park, who spoke little English upon arrival and who had an extremely limited budget.

Rather than pay for a campus residence or an apartment, he bought an old car that served as both his living quarters and source of transportation. He ate a steady diet of kimchi soup, made in and eaten out of the single stainless steel bowl that he owned, and showered in empty campus dorm rooms. He worked hard at school, fearful of having to pay to retake any classes, and he found a job at the campus police station and another as a construction worker to help him pay his bills.

“If you’re desperate, if you want something that bad, you just make it happen.”

Park studied hard and graduated in 1994. He got married and enlisted in the military as a way to support himself, his wife and their growing family. Park was deployed to Kosovo in 2000, and to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2003, three weeks after the birth of his second child. He rapidly rose through the ranks, positioning himself for his upcoming assignment, a return home, of sorts, where he will stationed for the next four years.

He is “excited and honored” to be returning to Korea as member of U.S. Armed Forces and contributing to the U.S.-Republic of Korea security alliance. “With my understanding of the culture and the interest of both nations, I feel I can positively contribute to the mission in building a healthy and stronger alliance,” says Park, who is also excited to share the culture and history of Korea with his wife and children, who will be joining him there.”

“I feel blessed,” says Park, who strives to be a positive role model to his children, now 13 and 8, and inspire others to remain diligent when striving to reach their goals. “Nothing is impossible. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you come from. You just have to never give up no matter what obstacles are put in your path.”

Center for Korean Studies