It won’t come as much of a shock to people that archival research can be boring. For every magnificent find, every gem that validates all your research, every surprising, wild story, there are pages and pages and pages of miscellaneous documents that repeat the same information over and over, and that have little or no bearing on your project.

My research is often very exciting to me, but it’s as hard of a slog as any archive-based research project. Studying American reformers, businesspeople, government officials, and missionaries in Korea, buried in thousands of pages about dollar to hwan exchange rates and plans for sheet glass factories, I find the good stuff. I find documents that confuse me, make me angry, make me laugh, make me curious. But after a year hopping from archive to archive, this all seems to blend together.

Lucky for me, amidst this monotony, one story has repeatedly popped up to my great interest. I was sitting in the reading room at the University of Minnesota, drowning in years of YMCA bulletins, and there he was, reminding me that my project is interesting and sad, and strange: Kang Koo Ri, the “boy who wouldn’t smile.”

Kang Koo Ri was originally from Uijongbu, a region in South Korea near the border. Kang was found by American soldiers in the wreckage of his home, his mother’s decaying body nearby, his father and older brother gone. Five years old starving, Kang was tiny, weeping, and scared when the Americans took him away to their regiment encampment. Kang ended up an orphanage, initially hesitant to socialize with his fellow orphans, most of whom had similarly tragic backstories. At first, he only played with one toy—a small rubber ball, with which he was very gentle. Slowly he began to come out of his shell, and with the help of some older kids at the orphanage, and the generosity of foreign aid workers who gave the orphanage supplies, he began to eat more, play, and laugh.

Hwan Shin Sung (R) sitting with Kang Koo Ri in the orphanage office.

This is Kang’s story as told by Life writer Michael Rougier in 1951. It ran alongside many pictures of Kang, looking tiny, forlorn, and adorable. Rougier’s original article, which also featured stories of other children in Kang’s orphanage, garnered sympathy for Korean children and resulted in outpourings of support for Kang and other children like him. Over the years Rougier followed up on Kang, writing little pieces about his progress, and asking for more generosity from his readers. Kang was adopted and moved to Los Angeles in 1956. What has stood out to me is that Kang and his stories keep popping up in various archives: As a means to appeal for money and remind American readers about the suffering of Koreans, Rougier’s tale had legs. [1]

The document at University of Minnesota is a small piece, a letter-from-the-editor in the July-December 1957 issue of World Communique, the publication for the World Alliance of the YMCA (that is, the umbrella organization meant to include all YMCA organizations worldwide). Occupying only a sidebar on the front page of the issue, the quick article features a picture of a broadly smiling Kang, holding up a picture of himself that appeared in Life in 1950. The piece in World Communique reiterated that it was through international charitable giving, a Christian commitment to helping others, that Kang’s story had a sweet ending. The article also served as a means for editor Paul G. Guinness to introduce the content of the World Communique Issue: coverage of the 1957 conference on “The Refugee Problem—Today and Tomorrow,” a conference with which Kang had nothing to do. Indeed, when Kang showed up in a YWCA magazine in 1952 as part of an appeal for Church World Service fundraising, he had nothing to do with that, either. Kang’s story was touching, and indeed the American woman who adopted him in 1956 said she felt “haunted” by him, but his tale moved beyond sad and sweet to level of abstraction. [2]

Korean orphan boy Kang Koo Ri, poking his rubber ball, one of the only two toys he has that he will touch.

Kang became a symbolic figure for a child-like Korea in need of aid. Kang’s story was illustrative of the sorts of people who might receive aid when good Christian Americans donated their time and money. It had also, since its beginning, been presented without being problematized: The main villain in Kang’s story was a global lack of peace, with no attention given to the U.S. or U.N.’s complicity in the war that destroyed Kang’s home. What’s more, in the World Communique piece, the imagery recognizes Kang’s position as symbol even as the writing passes it over: Kang holds up Life with his own large picture, emaciated, sad and cute. It’s not just a comparison of the old and the new Kang, it’s Kang holding his own representation.

I’ve come across Kang in many archives now, and each time I realize more how his story was more about the story than the child himself. Kang became an abstraction of human suffering and relief, divorced from his own context. For the purposes of my dissertation, Kang’s story is incredibly telling: Americans who sought to help Koreans in the 1950s knew very little about Koreans, and were in general content with their abstractions and stereotypes. Problematic as this may be, it served its purpose in the human rights discourses that Americans mobilized: Kang’s story was a hit.

Works Cited:

[1] Michael Rougier, “The Little Boy Who Wouldn’t Smile” Life (July 23, 1951); Ben Cosgrove, “’The Little Boy Who Wouldn’t Smile: A Story of the Korean War,” Time (July 24, 2014).

[2] Paul G. Guiness, “One of the Hundred and Fifty Million” World Communique (July-August 1957), Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis.