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A Wrenching Choice

Not that it would be possible, he said, to become a top executive at the Bellagio or any other U.S. casino. Every Asian person he knows in U.S. casinos has a job on the marketing side, which he said is not in line with his shy, by-the-numbers personality. He worried about his lack of any network in the United States. And he is 39. It is not an age for starting over, he said.

"I want to be at the top," said Kim, who supervises 101 people. He will retire at 49, he has decided, 10 years without his family.

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.

"It's a sacrifice," he acknowledged. "I don't live with the family. That's what parents do for the kids."

It is also a gamble.

A steady stream of stories in Korean newspapers depicts a shadow society of lonely fathers spiraling into depression. Many move from their empty homes into "officetels," or single rooms with maid service. Some are gaining weight on fast food and frozen dinners. Others are succumbing to what one newspaper delicately called "temptations," or sexual affairs. Several have committed suicide.

Han Jun Sang, a professor of education at Yonsei University in Seoul, said the kirogi phenomenon undermines the strong Korean belief that fathers are the head of the household. Without regular contact, the children will rebel against the father's authority, Han said, and his wife will become more independent. The fathers, Han said, "shrink psychologically."

Keeyeop Kim knows something about gambling. The only card game he plays is blackjack. And only for a half-hour at a time. Because if you play too long, he said, you can lose everything .

A Whirlwind Reunion

Jungwon Kim had a deadline and could not believe what the sales clerk at Sears was telling her: All the store's photographers were booked for the week. Kim insisted; she begged. Her husband was here in Ellicott City, for only a week.

She didn't know when he might be back. Finally, the Kims were squeezed into a Friday slot.

Their family life in Howard County, compressed into a visit of eight days, seven nights, was a whirlwind. They saw friends and relatives in Howard; they watched sports on television; they ate out every night.

There was a day trip to Hagerstown to shop for school clothes at the outlet mall and an open house at Hollifield Station to meet Eugene's teachers. For a wedding anniversary that was months away, Kim ordered his wife a Gucci purse and had it shipped express mail so he could give it to her in person.

One evening, Keeyeop Kim measured the children, as he did during his visit last January, and marked their heights on a piece of tape against the refrigerator. Hannah and Terry had grown about an inch; Eugene had shot up more than two inches.

But Keeyeop Kim's work intruded every day. Phone calls from his colleagues in Korea interrupted dinner. What bothered his wife, though, was that some of his time online -- and away from the family -- wasn't about work. Once, he was simply checking the CNN Web site.

By the final day of his visit, Jungwon Kim expressed some of the frustration she had been feeling for months. "He doesn't need a wife," she scoffed.

Keeyeop Kim was anxious, too. He felt like a visitor, more like an uncle than a father or husband. Terry has called the Ellicott City townhouse "our house" and told her father the apartment back in South Korea is "your house."

Kim, suddenly unsure of his decision to live this way for a full 10 years, began considering other options: retiring earlier or finding another job.

As he waited for a relative to pick him up, the children were scattered about the house. Eugene was in the living room, watching television with a neighborhood friend. Hannah was updating her Web diary to note that her dad was leaving: "sniff* i'll miss him . . . church was awesome today . . . the message was really . . . meaningful . . . what i just needed." Terry played games on the Barbie Web site.

At 3 p.m., it was time for Daddy to go, and Terry erupted into tears.

But not for her father. Her mother had shut off the computer. Terry wailed for Barbie. Finally, Keeyeop Kim scooped the little girl into his arms and walked to the front door. He gave her a kiss.

He hugged Eugene and Hannah and told them to be good. Listen to your mother, he said in Korean. Study hard.

He patted his wife on the cheek. Her eyes were red; so were his.

Hannah leaned against the door, weeping. Eugene immersed himself in his GameBoy. Terry forgot about Barbie and began crying for her father.

Outside, a car door slammed.

Two weeks later, Jungwon Kim picked up the family portrait. The large, silver-framed picture of her husband -- hand on her shoulder, surrounded by their three beaming children -- hangs in the living room.

In Korea, Keeyeop Kim has a smaller copy, tucked in his wallet.

Staff writer Phuong Ly and staff photographer Tracy A. Woodward reported this story in Ellicott City and Taebaek, South Korea. Besides photographs of the Kim family and Korean schools, other stories exploring the separation and sacrifices that immigrant families endure can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/metro.

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