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A Wrenching Choice

Eugene comes from a middle-class background and, in that sense, is like most of Hollifield Station's students. He also has a stay-at home mother who speaks English, an unusual asset for an immigrant child.

Kim, however, knows she is not enough. "Of course Eugene is missing something. . . ," she said. "He doesn't have his father."


Terry, left, and Hannah, far right, watch as their father prepares to catch a train to the airport. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)

Photo Gallery: The Cost of an American Education
_____Live Discussion_____
Monday , 2 p.m. ET: Post reporter Phuong Ly discusses her story on Korean children sent to the U.S. for education.

Boys often have the hardest time adjusting to the separations, said Sue Song, a mental health consultant in Howard County who has worked with about 20 kirogi mothers and their teenage sons in the past two years. The boys have failed classes, flown into violent rages and experimented with drugs. One family gave up and went back to Korea.

"They make a decision based on an idealistic situation, not so much based on reality," Song said. "When the years go by, a lot of things can happen."

Kim recognizes that and said she wants to shield her children from additional pressure. "I'll never tell Hannah and Eugene, 'You have to make good grades because Mom and Dad are suffering,' " she said. "I'll never say that. They didn't ask us to do it this way."

By the end of the school year, Eugene began to make some progress. He raised his hand in class, especially during math, in which he excels. He shared with some non-Korean classmates the games on his handheld computer. Still, he didn't like to speak much English. "It not fun," he said.

Fourth grade ended with a project on poetry. Eugene managed to fill a blank book with short rhymes, and his teacher, Jennifer Wilkins, praised him for his cover artwork: an aqua-blue house, red flowers and a big tree with a little cicada on the trunk.

Wilkins told the class to give their books one final touch: a dedication. As usual, most of the students started working right away. As usual, Eugene looked around the room.

Wilkins bent down beside Eugene and tried to explain what a dedication is.

Eugene raised his eyebrows: "Mwoh?"

It is a Korean word that Wilkins understood because Eugene said it so often. "Mwoh?" What?

She called over Justin, a Korean American boy. "It's like who inspired these poems," she said. "If he was going to give this book to someone, who would he give it to?"

Justin translated. Eugene finally understood.

He took a pencil and, in unsure print, wrote: "This book is for my dad because my dad in Korea."

Hedging His Bets

Halfway around the world in Taebaek, Dad was walking outside his high-rise apartment building. Dozens of dragonflies were darting around the deserted parking lot.

It was a gray, drizzly Sunday, the only free time in the six-day Korean workweek. Keeyeop Kim spent the morning in church. Except he missed half the service when someone from the casino called his cell phone. He would spend the rest of the day home alone, with file folders of paperwork. He shrugged. He had nothing else to do.

Across the parking lot, a little girl giggled. She was running, her arms propelling her like wings, and she breezed past Kim. Her mother followed, a bright blue net in hand. They were chasing dragonflies.

"A couple of years ago," Kim said quietly, "Eugene caught hundreds of dragonflies."

In the family's three-bedroom flat, all the children's furniture is gone. Eugene's room, with its sailboat wallpaper, has been turned into his father's office. On the computer, the weather is set to Ellicott City. Hannah's room houses an exercise bike and a weight machine. Snapshots of the children hang on the refrigerator.

Out on the balcony sat two blue American Tourister suitcases. Nearby, there was a new purchase: a set of Ping golf clubs. "There was nothing to do after I sent my family to the States," Kim said of playing the sport.

Of course, the golf -- like everything else in his life -- is intertwined with work. He was recently elected chairman of the employees' golf club, and his casino is building a world-class golf course. Kangwon Land rises, all glittering glass and marble, amid the low-slung buildings of this coal-mining region.

When Kim strides through the resort's chandelier-lighted halls, employees bow. He is a slight man who commands attention in his Italian suit and Cartier watch.

Inside the cavernous casino, Kim outlined his challenges with the precision of a math professor: where to position the machines to draw the most customers; how to increase slots revenue compared with the table games; which coins people are more likely to use in their wager. Kangwon Land's $300 million annual profit puts it in the ranks of such casinos as the Bellagio in Las Vegas, he said.


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