Insooni Breaks Racial Barrier to Become Beloved Singer in South Korea

When she took the stage to perform at Carnegie Hall in front of 107 Korean War veterans, the singer Kim Insoon was thinking of her father, an American soldier stationed in South Korea during the postwar decades whom she had never met or even seen.

“You are my fathers,” she told the soldiers in the audience before singing “Father,” one of her Korean-language hits.

“To me, the United States has always been my father’s country,” Ms. Kim said in a recent interview, recalling that 2010 performance. “It was also the first place where I wanted to show how successful I had become — without him and in spite of him.”

Ms. Kim, born in 1957, is better known as Insooni in South Korea, where she is a household name. For over four decades, she has won fans across generations with her passionate and powerful singing style and genre-crossing performances. Fathered by a Black American soldier, she also broke the racial barrier in a country deeply prejudiced against biracial people, especially those born to Korean women and African-American G.I.s.

Her enduring and pioneering presence in South Korea’s pop scene helped pave the way for future K-pop groups to globalize with multiethnic lineups.

“Insooni overcame racial discrimination to become one of the few singers widely recognized as pop divas in South Korea,” said Kim Youngdae, an ethnomusicologist. “She helped familiarize South Koreans with biracial singers and break down the notion that K-pop was only for Koreans and Korean singers.”

Thousands of biracial children were born as a result of the South Korea-U.S. security alliance. Their fathers were American G.I.s who fought the Korean War in the 1950s or who guarded South Korea against North Korean aggression during the postwar decades.

Most of their mothers worked in bars catering to the soldiers. Although South Korea depended on the dollars the women earned, its society treated them and their biracial children with contempt. Many mothers relinquished their children for adoptions overseas, mostly to the United States.

Those children who remained often struggled, keeping their biracial identity a secret if they could, in a society where, until a decade ago, schools taught children to take pride in South Korea’s racial “purity” and ‘‘homogeneity.”

“Whenever they said that, I felt like being singled out,” Insooni said.

In school, boys pelted her with racist slurs based on her skin color, said Kim Nam-sook, a former schoolmate, “but she was a star during school picnics when she sang and danced.”

Now a self-assured sexagenarian, she has started a Golden Girls K-pop concert tour with three divas in their 50s.

But Insooni’s confidence turned into wariness when she discussed her childhood in Pocheon, a town near the border with North Korea. Topics she still found too sensitive to discuss in detail included her younger half sister, whose father was also an American G.I. When she was young, she said, she hated when people stared at her and asked about her origins, wishing that she were a nun cloistered in a monastery.

She said her mother had not worked in a bar, recalling her as a “strong” woman who grabbed whatever odd work she could find, like collecting firewood in the hills, to feed her family. Virtually all she knew about her father was that he had a name that sounded similar to “Van Duren.”

The mother and daughter never talked about him, she said. Nor did Insooni try to find him, assuming he had his own family in the United States. Her mother, who died in 2005, never married. Because of the stigma attached to having biracial children, she lost contact with many of her relatives. When the young Insooni saw her mother crying, she didn’t ask why.

“If we went there, both of us knew that we would fall apart,” she said. “I figured this out early even as a child: You have to do your best with the card you are dealt, rather than going down the rabbit hole of asking endless whys. You can’t fix bygones.”

Insooni’s formal education ended with middle school. She and her mother were then living in Dongducheon, a city north of Seoul with a large U.S. military base. One day, a singer who performed for American soldiers came to her neighborhood to recruit biracial background dancers.

“I hated that town and this was my way out,” she said.

Insooni debuted in 1978 as the only biracial member of the “Hee Sisters,” one of the most popular girl groups at the time. TV producers, she said, made her cover her head to hide her Afro. In 1983, she released her first solo hit, “Every Night,” still a karaoke favorite for Koreans.

A slump followed. Ignored by TV, she performed at nightclubs and amusement parks.

But her time in the entertainment wilderness helped shape her artistic identity, as she honed her live-performance skills and versatility, learning to sing and communicate with children, elderly people and whoever else showed up to hear her.

“I don’t tell my audience: ‘This is the kind of song I sing, so listen to them,’” she said. “I say: ‘Tell me what kind of song you like, and I will practice and will sing them for you next time.’”

She constantly prepared for her comeback to TV. Whenever she watched a TV music show, she imagined herself there and practiced “songs I would sing, dresses I would wear and gestures I would make.” Her chance came when the national broadcaster KBS introduced its weekly “Open Concert” for cross-generational audiences in 1993. She has been in demand ever since.

Although she did not have as many original hits as some other top singers, Insooni often took others’ songs, like “Goose’s Dream,” and made them nationally popular, reviewers said. She kept reinventing herself, adopting everything from disco and ballads to R&B and soul, and collaborating with a young rapper in “My Friend.”

“Many singers faded away as they aged, but Insooni’s popularity only expanded in her later years, her status rising as a singer with songs appealing across the generational spectrum,” said Kim Hak-seon, a music critic.

South Koreans say Insooni’s songs — like “Goose’s Dream,” which starts “I had a dream” — and her positive onstage manner resonate with them in part because of the difficulties she has lived through.

“You first come to her songs feeling like you want to hug her,” said Lee Hee-boon, 67, a fan. “But you end up feeling encouraged.”

Insooni, who married a South Korean college professor, gave birth to her only child, a daughter, in the United States in 1995, to make her an American citizen, she said. She worried that if her child resembled her, she would suffer the same discrimination as she did.

Today, South Korea is becoming increasingly multiethnic. One out of every 10 weddings is bi-ethnic, as men in rural areas marry women from poorer countries in Asia. Its farms and small factories can’t run without migrant workers from abroad.

One of South Korea’s most popular rappers — Yoon Mi-rae, or Natasha Shanta Reid — sings about her biracial identity. K-pop groups like NewJeans have biracial or foreign members as their markets globalize.

Insooni welcomed the change but doubted that the country was embracing multiculturalism “with hearts,” not out of economic needs.

In 2013, she founded the tuition-free Hae Mill School for multicultural children in Hongcheon, east of Seoul, after learning that a majority of biracial children still didn’t advance to high school, decades after her own school life ended so early.

During the recent interview, at the school, students on campus rushed to hug her.

“You can tell me things you cannot even tell your mom and dad because I am one of you,” she told children during an entrance ceremony this month.

Insooni sometimes questions her decision not to look for her father. She once told South Korean military officers that if they were posted abroad, they should never do what American G.I.s did in Korea decades ago: “spreading seeds you cannot take responsibility for.”

“At Carnegie Hall, I was thinking that there might be a chance, however small, that some of the American veterans might have left children like me behind in Korea,” she said. “If they did, I wanted to tell them to take their burden off their minds. Whether successful or not, children like me have all tried to make the best of our lives in our own way.”

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