Stephen Cho

Stephen Cho

Canterbury's People: Stephen Cho had a distinguished career in the South Korean Army before migrating to Singapore and then Australia in 1983 at the age of 69. He is a member of the Korean Solidarity of Human Rights, Director of the Korean Society in Australia and established the "Top Korean Newspaper".

Childhood in Seoul, Korea

Cho Hak Soo, known as Stephen Cho, grew up in Seoul during the last decade of the Japanese occupation. The repressive influence of the Japanese was evident in all aspects of his life. They declared Shinto to be the official religion in Korea at the time and every home had a Shinto shrine in pride of place. Stephen's family, like most others, followed the Japanese customs and practices in public but in the privacy of their homes, they maintained the Korean language, traditions and customs. The Shinto shrine was largely ignored and Stephen's parents told him of the great Korean ancestor, Tangun, and taught him the right way to respect ancestors in the Korean tradition.

Japanese teachers taught in the Korean schools and all lessons were conducted in Japanese. No one was permitted to speak Korean and if an adult or child was caught conversing in their mother tongue they were severely punished.

Stephen's childhood days were filled with school lessons followed by Japanese style military training. This involved parade marching, drills and singing Japanese military style songs. Often the children were taken to the mountains near the school to forage for medicinal herbs. Early in Stephen's primary school years the Japanese became involved in the Second World War. At this stage when the students and the Japanese teachers visited the mountains, the students were told to keep a look out for American bombers.

The End of Japanese Occupation 1945

On 15 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender to the Allied forces. Stephen and his classmates witnessed the tears of their Japanese teachers as they listened to the announcement on the staff room radio. The school children were elated and cheered enthusiastically.

Confusion and disruption characterised the next few months in Korea as numerous acts of revenge were dealt to Japanese families. Transitional governments were established in North and South Korea. North of the 38th parallel was under Russian control. American forces under General Macarthur were in place in the South. These transitional governments eventually established some sort of order in the country, and in 1948, elections for head of government were held in the South. Sungman Lee was elected as president of the new independent Republic of Korea. In the same year, Kim Il Sung became the first Premier of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea).

By this time Stephen was attending high school. There were many debates, arguments and physical fights at school between supporters of the pro-communist and pro-democracy student factions. These conflicts made life difficult and dangerous for everyone at that time.

"I was pro-democracy and one day my older brother asked me to take a letter to another pro-democracy supporter. A group of pro-communist students caught me and put me in a 44 gallon drum. They put the lid on and rolled me around the playground in the drum, banging on the side all the time. It was terrible. Some of my friends heard what was happening and fought off the pro-communist students …"

Korean War 1950-3

At 5am on the 25 June 1950, the North Korean army invaded the South. That day at school the pro-communist students all wore red arm-bands and were determined to capture the pro-democracy students. Without even saying goodbye to his family, Stephen fled the city to hide in the mountains. He was still in hiding, travelling south from Seoul towards Pusan, when he heard that his father had died. He knew then that he had to return to Seoul and fight for his family and country.

In 1952 Stephen joined the student army and trained to be an Officer with the South Korean Army. He saw active duty leading his battalion of men in jungle warfare in the mountainous regions near the border of North and South Korea. For his services in the Korean War he received a number of medals from the United Nations Security Forces (who assisted South Korea to defend its borders) and from the South Korean Government.

After the war Stephen continued in the Army, contributing his skills and experience as a teacher in the School of Artillery. He married and had two sons and one daughter and was fully enjoying his peace-time life in Seoul, when his wife unexpectedly died of a brain tumour in 1966. Stephen felt as if his life would never heal. He did not want to marry again and so he decided to look for work outside Korea, away from the source of such personal sadness.

Life in Singapore

Stephen was invited to Singapore to teach Tae Kwon Do to the Singapore Police in 1967. He moved there with his youngest daughter (who was young enough to require parental support), building a new life and eventually beginning a business as an import agent for Korean food items. In the late 1970s there were many Koreans working in industries such as construction in South East Asia and the Middle East. Consequently there was a big demand for Korean small goods in those countries.

His business prospered for the next few years and then, in 1983, an incident occurred that once again put Stephen's life in turmoil. One evening on the news he saw a report of the shooting down of a Korean plane by the Russian forces. The plane had mistakenly flown over Russian territory. The loss of innocent life at the hands of a military power so incensed Stephen that he was driven to forcefully protest at the Russian Embassy in Singapore and was duly arrested and faced deportation.

Migration to Australia

At the time Stephen had a travel visa to Australia and decided to visit here before returning to Korea.

"I was visiting a friend and I had become lost so I approached this lady in Minter St Canterbury who was watering her garden. I asked her for directions. She turned off the hose and walked me through several streets right to the front door of my friend's house. I was so impressed by her kindness I thought it must be paradise here. It was also peaceful and people were compassionate and friendly."

After Stephen completed a lengthy tour of Australia – including Brisbane, Melbourne and Mt Isa – he finally decided to try to make Australia his home. Late in 1983, he came to live in Canterbury and found work on a local construction project. His sons, 27 and 28 years old at this time, had established lives in Korea and did not want to join him. His daughter came to study in Australia for a number of years.

Stephen married for the second time in 1986 and he and his wife, who has a son from a previous marriage, still live in Campsie. Stephen spent a lot of time with his stepson during his teenage years, helping him to build his health and confidence.

Settling into Canterbury

It was during this time, at an open day at Fort St High where his stepson attended school, that Stephen became familiar with volleyball and soon had his stepson training hard for the school team. His stepson was very successful and won numerous awards through his school years and at university.

Stephen had become such an enthusiast for volleyball that he established the Korean Volleyball Association. It is now a national organisation based in Canterbury that promotes and organises competition volleyball.

Stephen has always taken an active role within the Korean community in Sydney and has been involved in numerous community organisations, including the establishment of the "Top Korean Newspaper" which is based in Campsie. His interest in writing was kindled when he studied Korean literature at university many years ago.

Stephen is currently the Director of the Korean Society in Australia, which operates out of the Korean Club in Croydon Park. This organisation has a large role in organising the Korean Food and Cultural Festival held in Campsie each year.

Some of the most important work Stephen is currently involved in is for the Korean Solidarity of Human Rights. They have campaigned and lobbied in two recent cases where detainees have been imprisoned without a court hearing. Stephen holds a strong belief that migration policy in Australia has become inhumane in many cases. Stephen himself has experienced the harshness of this policy when his daughter's application to migrate was refused.

Despite this loss, Stephen remains an optimistic, active and committed resident of the Canterbury area and intends to continue his involvements in the local Korean and wider community for many years to come.