Soon Chung Park worked long days as single mom to bring 5 kids from Korea to U.S.

Hanna Park
·5 min read

From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Soon Chung Park was always at work. She immigrated to the U.S. as a widow 40 years ago with five children still in Korea, determined to bring them to a place that she wanted to call home.

Park, who was among the eight people killed at three Atlanta-area spas last week, strove to keep up with relentless bills. She eventually brought her son and four daughters to the U.S. between the late '90s and early 2000s, on separate occasions due to immigration bureaucracy.

“There isn’t a work that our mother-in-law didn’t do,” Scott Lee, her son-in-law, told NBC Asian America.

He said he remembers how warm-hearted she was, going out of her way to put others before herself.

Park, 74, had worked a handful of jobs at delis and restaurants before working at a farm in the late 1980s to help earn citizenship and bring all her kids to the U.S. by “her own means,” Scott Lee said. Park also ran a jewelry business in New York before moving to Georgia about a decade ago.

In 2018, she started working at Gold Spa, after meeting Gwangho Lee, 38, her new husband. The two met in 2017 after her roommate’s acquaintance in New York City introduced the pair. They got married privately the following year.

“My wife had told me how hard it was for her to make it in the U.S.,” Gwangho Lee said in Korean.

The couple’s house remains adorned with some of Park’s favorite items: towering sunflowers, cactuses, succulent plants, Korean orchids, ceramic owls, champagne and bottles of one of her favorite wines. In photos, she's seen wearing her signature rosy lipstick.

Gwangho Lee said he hasn’t been able to sleep by himself in the empty house that he once shared with his wife.

“She was young in spirit — like a kid who couldn’t stay still, always so bubbly,” he said.

The four women killed in the Atlanta spas were identified Friday as Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong Yue, 63. The remaining victims, who were killed at a spa in Cherokee County, about 25 miles north of the city, were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44.

The man accused of killing eight people — six of whom were Asian women — in the three shootings was charged with eight counts of murder last week.

Park, who worked alongside Grant and Kim, was a cook and housekeeper who served their colleagues’ meals, accompanied with kimchi and banchan, or small side dishes.

Soon Chung Park. (Courtesy Gwangho Lee)
Soon Chung Park. (Courtesy Gwangho Lee)

Scott Lee said he’s wistful for Park’s jip bap, or Korean home-cooked meals, saying, “Our mother-in-law made the best kimchi dumplings and handed them out to our household of over 30 people whenever we met for Chuseok or a large family gathering.” She had plans to move to New Jersey to live with her family once her apartment lease expired.

“She just really liked moving about and working, instead of just lounging at home,” Scott Lee said.

Gwangho Lee, who worked as a house-painter and a Lyft driver, recalled how she would return home after long, dreary hours with sore, swollen wrists, but she always checked in to see if he hadn’t skipped his meal.

Her few respites were the rare couple of days off work she earned each month or her lunch breaks, when she would often spend time calling Gwangho Lee.

He has kept a collection of her voicemails, which he would still listen to each night.

“It feels like I’m talking to her when I hear her voice,” he said.

Date nights were rare for them, but the pair had visited Stone Mountain, Georgia Aquarium and Gulf Islands National Seashore. Her only break this month was going to be on March 17, the day after the shooting, when the couple had planned to stop by a hair salon and dine in at a Korean barbecue restaurant.

“If only we had gone earlier,” he said in remorse.

On Tuesday evening, Gwangho Lee arrived at Gold Spa after receiving a text from an employee who thought the store was getting robbed. He said he arrived on the scene, attempting to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation between gulps of cries of “Emergency!” to the few police officers nearby, who were not responsive.

Gwangho Lee said he “spoke enough English” to seek help or “cry for emergency” in a crisis. He believes the officers might not have been responsive then because they had already inspected the victims’ state prior to his arrival.

The Atlanta Police Department declined to comment on Park, citing an ongoing investigation.

The shooting sparked a national discourse after a Cherokee County Sheriff's Office spokesman said the suspect told investigators he was motivated by a "sex addiction" and the spokesman remarked that day "was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did."

“To me, that all looks like a gimmick for a way out,” Gwangho Lee said.

“It’s unacceptable — eight people died. It’s just really unfair to the victims,” he said. He said he felt the suspect’s motivation seemed premeditated after reading about how he purchased a gun in advance. “It hurts to see these reports. This never should have happened.”

Gwangho Lee, whose home country has strict gun policies, said the sight of firearms in the U.S. were particularly disturbing.

He said it was common for him to keep his feelings inside, based on how he grew up, but he had some regrets: “I just wish I had expressed more.”