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Tragedy Filled Early Life of Psychiatric Diversity Pioneer
Psychiatric News
Volume 45 Number 3 page 6-26

After coming of age amid a vortex of political strife, government oppression, and personal loss, psychiatrist Luke Kim, M.D., Ph.D., has used his knowledge and experience to help his colleagues appreciate and better understand the backgrounds of their patients.

Though he is retired, his legacy as a pioneer in the teaching of cultural psychiatry lives on through the Luke and Grace Kim Endowed Professorship in Cultural Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine. Kim and his wife of 47 years, Grace, established the professorship in 2006 with $250,000 of his own funds from the sale of his house in Davis. The university more than doubled funding toward the endowment.

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From left are Luke Kim, M.D.; his wife, Grace Kim; Phuong-Thay Le, M.D., a psychiatrist; and her husband, Francis Lu, M.D. Lu holds the position of the Luke and Grace Kim Endowed Professor of Cultural Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine. 

Photo courtesy of Luke I. Kim, MD, PhD

The Kims now live in a retirement community in Seal Beach, Calif., and have two sons and four grandchildren.

After a multiyear national search, Francis Lu, M.D., filled the cultural psychiatry professorship in July 2009. He is the director of cultural psychiatry and associate director of residency training. Lu was formerly a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Cultural Competence and Diversity Program in the Department of Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital.

"Luke and Grace are very warm people who are dedicated to furthering the field of cultural psychiatry," Lu told Psychiatric News in an interview. "With this endowment, they have extended Luke's legacy to future generations of psychiatrists."

Kim was born in 1930 in the harbor city of Shinuiju, now in North Korea, and had three younger siblings. When Kim was 5, the family moved to Tokyo so that his father could pursue a university degree in civil engineering. When his father was hired as the civil engineer for the regional province government in North Korea three years later, the family returned.

Kim attended a private school in North Korea, which was then occupied by Japan. At the time, all public and private schools in Korea were under Japanese military authority, and Kim was one of many students required to participate in daily military marches, drills, and other activities. "We were forbidden to speak Korean in school," Kim recalled in an interview.

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At age 14, Kim, along with about 300 other students from his school, was taken away from home by train under the order of the Japanese military and forced to do hard labor. The boys were "interned" in a Japanese weapons factory that was surrounded by 10-foot-high cement walls topped with barbed wire and heavily guarded.

"The Pyongyang factory looked like a prison compound," Kim said. Kim and his peers manufactured bombs, machine guns, and other weapons for long hours every day, were fed rice with pieces of turnip, and slept on the bare wooden floor of the barracks.

On the morning of August 15, 1945, the boys were called to assemble in a large space, where they heard Japanese Emperor Hirohito reading the text of an unconditional surrender in a shaky voice, according to Kim. That day they left the camp for the first time in 14 months.

When Kim returned to school, a Japanese ROTC officer who was assigned to the school, ashamed that the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered and thus was defeated in the war, first killed his pregnant wife and then committed hara-kiri by stabbing himself in the abdomen.

The officer's body was cremated, and Kim, as student body president, was chosen to pick up the cremated bones from the ashes with chopsticks. "It was a task I performed with an eerie sadness," he said.

North Korea fell under communist rule after World War II ended; many families, in an attempt to escape the oppressive new government, crossed the 38th parallel to find new lives in South Korea. "This exodus brought about much tragedy for many," including his own family, Kim said, because relatives became separated permanently.

Kim's uncle, a Presbyterian minister, was kidnapped and imprisoned for his Christian beliefs and later sent to a labor camp near Siberia. Kim doesn't know what became of his uncle—or many other relatives—after that. "I still have many aunts, nephews, and cousins living in North Korea, and I have not been able to establish contact with them since 1946," he said.

Kim's father learned from a friend that he was about to be arrested for practicing his Christian faith and so moved the family successfully across the 38th parallel to South Korea. "Freedom of religion was important to us and was one of the reasons we fled," Kim said.

In Seoul, South Korea, Kim completed high school and entered Seoul National University College of Liberal Arts and Science as a premed student, where he met his future wife. Grace was then studying at the university to become a teacher. One of the foundations of Luke and Grace's relationship was their Christian faith and their work in the Presbyterian Church.

Life still had its difficulties, however. During the Korean War, Kim's mother was kidnapped from their house by North Korean authorities, most likely due to her being a leader in the Presbyterian Church. Kim later learned that during this time, many Koreans were forced to walk 200 miles to North Korea on foot and, if they lived, were imprisoned there. On the long march, however, many became weak and died or were shot to death if they walked too slowly.

"The last day I saw my mother was August 31, 1950," Kim said. Since that time, Kim has made multiple attempts to learn about her fate through the International Red Cross but has been unsuccessful thus far.

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Kim graduated from Seoul National University School of Medicine in 1953 and, under the advice of a professor there, entered a clinical psychology program at the University of Arizona with the intention of returning to South Korea to start a new clinical psychology program in the medical school. However, shortly before Kim's expected return to Korea in 1960, his mentor passed away. Therefore, he decided to remain in the United States and asked Grace to come to America to marry him. At that time, Grace was a high school teacher who had established a vocational high school for homeless, orphaned teenagers with the help of colleagues who taught on a volunteer basis.

Grace traveled to the United States following a six-year long-distance courtship with Kim in which there were weekly letter exchanges across the Pacific Ocean while he was studying to get his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona. They married in 1962 in Buffalo when Luke was a psychiatry resident at the University of Buffalo and Buffalo State Hospital.

After residency training, the Kims moved to California, and Luke began work at the Department of Corrections California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif., where from 1970 to 1982 he served first as senior psychiatrist and coordinator of professional education and then as chief of professional education and chief psychiatrist.

During that time, Kim worked with such notorious prisoners as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. One of the inmate-research assistants Kim supervised was Timothy Leary, a former Harvard psychology professor and "LSD guru" who was in prison on drug-related charges. Kim described Leary as "a visionary" who shared ideas with Kim about outer space and the universe that Kim called "way ahead of his time."

When then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan shifted the emphasis of the correctional system from rehabilitation to a more punitive-based system, Kim, like many other psychiatrists working in the California Department of Corrections, left to find work elsewhere.

He joined the faculty at the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry in 1973 and became a clinical professor in 1996.

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In 1979 Kim established the Association of Korean-American Psychiatrists and was a member of the APA Committee of Asian-American Psychiatrists. APA bestowed its Kun-Po Soo Award on him in 1997 "for significant contributions toward understanding the impact and import of Asian cultural heritage."

In the late 1990s, Kim began teaching a seminar on cultural psychiatry to UC Davis psychiatry residents each year. He also wrote an academic paper titled "Korean Ethos," which was presented at an American Academy of Psychoanalysis conference in 1990. In it he describes the major principles of Korean ethos that were largely unfamiliar to American psychiatrists at the time. One example is a value held by many Koreans—"Che-myun," the concept of "face saving" to maintain dignity and respect.

In his annual seminar, Kim taught psychiatry residents and medical students about the cultural backgrounds of Asian-American patients and how patients' backgrounds and prevailing beliefs and attitudes often affect the manifestation of mental illness and treatment.

Kim also rallied psychiatry faculty with African-American and Latino backgrounds to share their cultural experiences with residents during these seminars so that the residents could be better prepared to help their patients from these backgrounds.

With the leadership of Russell Lim, M.D., now an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UC Davis, and Robert Hales, M.D., M.B.A., professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UC Davis, the psychiatry faculty formed the Diversity Advisory Committee in 1999, which won the American College of Psychiatrists Creativity in Psychiatric Education Award in 2007.

The committee members ensured that cultural psychiatry courses were incorporated into the curriculum.

With the establishment of the Luke and Grace Kim Endowed Professorship in Cultural Psychiatry, Kim hopes that UC Davis will continue to serve as a nationally-renowned and respected training and research center for cultural psychiatry.

Although he retired more than three years ago, Kim and his wife have never stopped their mission of teaching others about culture. Two years ago, Grace organized the first multicultural festival in their retirement community of nearly 10,000 residents. It has now become an annual event. The festival features keynote speakers from around the world, a copious amount of international food, and traditional music and dance performed by people of diverse backgrounds.

"We share so many cultures here," Grace told Psychiatric News. "We have so much to learn about one another and how to live together in peace and harmony by appreciating the true meaning of diversity among us." blacksquare

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From left are Luke Kim, M.D.; his wife, Grace Kim; Phuong-Thay Le, M.D., a psychiatrist; and her husband, Francis Lu, M.D. Lu holds the position of the Luke and Grace Kim Endowed Professor of Cultural Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine. 

Photo courtesy of Luke I. Kim, MD, PhD

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