Born in 1928 in Kaesong, North Korea, K.W.’s activism started during the student democratization movement as a student at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. In 1950, he immigrated to the United States on a student visa and studied journalism at West Virginia University, later receiving a master's degree from the University of Illinois in 1955. He then became the first Asian immigrant hired by a mainstream daily newspaper when he reported for the Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee and the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. As an investigative reporter, K.W. covered a variety of human interest stories that focused on social justice, such as black lung disease among coal miners in the Appalachian Mountains and the civil rights movement in Jim Crow South.
While at the Sacramento Union during the 1970s, K.W. initiated a series of investigatory pieces on Chol Soo Lee, an immigrant Korean who was racially profiled and wrongfully convicted in 1973 for a murder involving Chinese gangs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His articles brought national and even international attention to a man already imprisoned and on death row for five years, sparking a grassroots mobilization of the Korean American and Asian American community for a retrial on his behalf. Along with other community leaders and activists, K.W. played a key role in the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, one of the earliest pan-Asian American movements for justice. Over the course of five years to Chol Soo Lee’s retrial and subsequent acquittal, K.W. produced over 100 articles shedding light on Chol Soo Lee’s plight and the inconsistencies surrounding his first trial. Entitled the Chol Soo Lee papers, these articles were recently donated by K.W. and are now archived at U.C. Davis.
For K.W., the Chol Soo Lee movement demonstrated the lack of political voice and community organization among Korean Americans, who at the time were largely recent immigrants. In response, in 1979 K.W. founded Koreatown Weekly, the first national English-language Korean American publication, in order to provide such a voice. Along with partners Randy Hagihara and Steve Chanecka, this effort became what K.W. would refer to as “I-5 Journalism,” since the trio shuttled between Sacramento and Los Angeles to put the paper together and later distribute it. However, as a paper ahead of its time, Koreatown Weekly folded in 1982 due to financial constraints.
In 1990, K.W. established the English Edition to the Korea Times in Los Angeles. During this crucial time in Korean American history, K.W. already sensed the escalating tensions between African American customers and Korean American merchants in an inner city that had been neglected and abandoned. When Los Angeles erupted in flames on April 29, 1992, K.W.’s premonitions and worst fears came true. As the Korean American community experienced a second victimization by mainstream media’s insensitive portrayal of sa-i-gu (4-2-9 in Korean), ethnic publications like the Korea Times English Edition became all the more important in providing fair coverage of its community, as well as becoming its mouthpiece to the outside world. At the time, K.W. was hospitalized as a result of Hepatitis-B and a liver transplant. From his hospital bed, he watched the events of sa-i-gu unfold and supervised his reporters’ coverage of what he would later call, “the Korean American community’s wake-up call to consciousness.”
K.W. continues to serve as a veteran journalist on the editorial board of Color Lines Magazine and is the founding president of the Korean American Journalists Association. During his career, he has received a plethora of awards and distinctions, including Asian American Journalists Association's first ever Lifetime Achievement Award, the John Anson Ford Award by the Human Relations Commission of L.A. County in the aftermath of sa-i-gu, and the first Asian American recipient of the Free Spirit Award from the Freedom Forum in 1994. In 1997, he was inducted into the Newseum's Journalism History Gallery. In 2000, he was profiled in “Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists: The Newseum's Most Intriguing Newspeople,” under the category of “barrier breakers” alongside the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, founder of The Crisis and co-founder of the NAACP; Alice Stone Blackwell, who covered the women’s suffrage movement; and Randy Shilts, one of the first openly gay reporters covering the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.
Now in semi-retirement, K.W. continues to be active as a spokesperson for the Korean American community. In universities such as U.C.L.A. and U.C. Davis, he has lectured on investigative journalism in communities of color, inspiring a new generation of Asian American journalists seeking social justice and fair representation for their communities. In his quest to rally the second generation as activists and to empower their community, K.W. is ever present at leadership conventions and other speaking engagements.
Lastly, in order to document Korean American history and experience, K.W. along with Dr. Luke and Grace Kim have a forthcoming publication, Lonesome Journey: the Korean American Century – A Korean Oral History, a collection of oral histories from the earliest wave of Korean immigrants. On contemporary history, K.W. is co-editor with Julie Ha of Witnessing a Defining Moment for Korean American Diaspora: Children of Sa-I-Gu Remember, a multi-racial anthology of those remembering sa-i-gu as children.
K.W. is married to Peggy and they have three children and five grandchildren. K.W. and his wife currently reside in Sacramento.
A CAUTIONARY TALE: DEEDS, NOT DEGREES, THAT MATTER
By K. W. Lee
A TRIBE, A PEOPLE OR A NATION is likely known or judged by its heroes by whom it reveres above all others.
Such is Abraham Lincoln, an icon of all humanity beyond borders.
So are Korean diaspora pioneers Dosan Ahn Chang Ho (Island Mountain) and Charles Ho (Nobody) Kim who are now among the pantheons of not only Korean but American heroes.
These towering figures from our American heritage share one common trait: They couldn’t afford attending a day in college.