Remembering Luke Kim, a Community Activist and Pioneer in Cultural Psychiatry


Dr. Luke Ik Chang Kim, who devoted much of his life to helping the disenfranchised and voiceless in society through his work as a psychiatrist and community activist, passed away on July 12 in Seal Beach, California. He was 85.

This past March, Kim, who bravely battled Parkinson’s disease for several years, appeared in his wheelchair at a Day of Remembrance gathering in Los Angeles to memorialize the passing of Chol Soo Lee, a wrongfully convicted Korean American death row inmate, whose acquittal and freedom Kim and his wife Grace worked hard to achieve in the 1980s. Kim, appearing fragile but still managing a gentle smile, sat quietly in the audience, as Grace addressed the crowd with her characteristic enthusiasm for social justice issues.

Indeed, it is difficult to talk about Luke Kim without mentioning Grace Kim—the first-generation Korean American duo stood out for their participation in civil rights protests in the 1970s, advocacy for such progressive causes as the defense of Chol Soo Lee and vocal support for LGBT rights.

The Kims always said that their dedication to social justice sprung from great hardship they suffered during their early years in Korea.

Luke was born in Sinuiju, in what is now North Korea, on April 22, 1930, two decades into the 35-year Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. At age 14, he and hundreds of other youth were conscripted by the Japanese military and forced to work at a heavily guarded weapons factory in Pyongyang, an experience he described in his 2012 autobiography, Beyond the Battle Line: The Korean War and My Life.

Although Korea was liberated in August 1945 with Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, Kim’s family was soon forced to flee south as the North turned communist. “After we made the successful escape to South Korea, we cried with joy, kneeled down for prayer and kissed the soil,” Luke told KoreAm in 2002. “We thanked God and vowed dedication to God’s work.”

But turmoil would arise again, when on Aug. 28, 1950, during North Korea’s invasion of Seoul, authorities from the North kidnapped his mother, likely because of her leadership in the Presbyterian Church. At the time, the Communists were known to target and persecute Christians. That was the last time Luke saw his mother, and multiple attempts since then to learn of her whereabouts were unsuccessful.

Luke told KoreAm that he saw education as a weapon against this kind of oppression. He would go on to earn his medical degree from Seoul National University in 1956, and then, at the urging of his mentor, came to the United States to obtain his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Arizona.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 7.45.05 PM

In 1962, Luke married his longtime friend and fellow Seoul National University graduate, Grace, then a teacher and principal in Seoul. The pair eventually settled down in Davis, Calif., raising two sons. For three decades, Luke served as chief psychiatrist and chief of Research and Staff Development at the California Department of Corrections’ California Medical Facility in Vacaville. During that period, some of his high-profile patients included inmates Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Juan Corona and Timothy Leary.

Between 1973 and 2005, Luke also worked as a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. It was there where he made cultural psychiatry—or, taking into account a patient’s cultural background and values when diagnosing and treating psychiatric conditions—a key focus of his work and advocacy within the field. He would initiate and teach seminars for psychiatry residents about the relationship between mental health, culture and ethnicity.

“Culture makes such a big difference in mental health and illness,” he told UC Davis’ Psychiatry Magazine in 2008. “I find that when evaluating depression in the Korean elderly, results are more fruitful if one uses traditional folk concepts (like han) than asking directly if they feel sad or depressed. If a health worker were to explain that such [cultural] concepts are taught during medical training because the United States is a multicultural society, I am certain that Korean patients would respond more favorably.”

Longtime readers of KoreAm may recognize Luke’s name from the pages of the magazine: he was a contributor to the “Lonesome Journey” oral history series on Korean America’s earliest immigrants. He was also quoted from time to time as an expert source on Korean cultural ethos, discussing such concepts as face-saving (chaemyun), and was the subject of a few KoreAm stories, including a 2002 double-profile on him and his wife, as well as a 2008 Valentine’s Day feature paying tribute to the social justice-minded pair.

In the Valentine’s Day piece, Grace, noting the deep camaraderie the couple had, credited her husband for being her most ardent supporter. “He’s very positive and always gives me courage so that I don’t give up,” she said.

The couple’s older son, David, once recalled to KoreAm that his parents would host meetings in the family’s living room for the activists helping Chol Soo Lee. The Kims even mortgaged their own house to help pay for Lee’s criminal defense fees.

“Their living room was the 24-7 mecca for all sorts of Asian community activists on so many community service fronts,” said their longtime friend, veteran journalist K.W. Lee. In
an email, Lee praised Luke for “walking the walk” for the cause of “building a better life for the unseen, the unheard and the unrepresented from the four corners of the world.”

In addition to his contributions to the field of psychiatry and social justice causes, Luke leaves behind a legacy of philanthropy. In 2006, he and Grace donated $250,000 to establish an endowed professorship in cultural psychiatry at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Luke Kim is survived by his wife of 53 years, Grace; son David of Vienna, Virginia; son Danny of North Tustin, California; daughters-in-law Julie and Janet; grandchildren Tessa, Jaisohn, Jeffrey and Luke; and siblings Iknan Kim of Seoul, Korea; Iksung Kim of Bridgewater, New Jersey; and Paul Ikpoong Kim of Seal Beach, California.


All photos courtesy of the Kim family

This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)