The Korean Bell of Friendship: The Story of an LA Icon

Overlooking the Pacific in San Pedro, inside Angels Gate Park, is a 12-foot tall, 17-ton gift from South Korea that marked the U.S. Bicentennial. The Korean Friendship Bell is modeled after the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, but incorporates imagery that celebrates the relationship between the U.S. and Korea. Step inside the pavilion for a close-up look and you'll notice the Goddess of Liberty arm-in-arm with a Korean spirit.

Members of LA's Korean American community were instrumental in bringing the bell to Los Angeles. This history is something that the Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee is currently researching. "The official version is that there is a group of prominent Korean Americans that felt the need to engage the South Korean government about the upcoming Bicentennial of American independence," says Ernest Lee, executive director of the KFBPC. "The group approached the Korean government and the Korean government, in turn, felt that this was actually a very important gesture that they wanted to make."

Korean Bell of Friendship at sunset
The Korean Bell of Friendship at sunset | Instagram: @districtvsion

One of the individuals involved in this effort may have been Philip Ahn. The son of a prominent proponent for Korean independence, Ahn was born in Highland Park in 1902 and is believed to be the first U.S. citizen born to Korean parents. He became a prolific actor, starring in movies like Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and King of Chinatown (1939) alongside Anna May Wong. By the 1970s, though, he was perhaps most familiar to audiences as Master Kan in the television series Kung Fu and was the first Asian American to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The KFBPC is still trying to verify Ahn's role in bringing the Korean Friendship Bell to San Pedro. They do know that he was part of one of the groups that approached the Korean government about commemorating the U.S. bicentennial.

Philip Ahn and Anna Mae Wong in "Daughter of Shanghai" (1937)
Philip Ahn and Anna May Wong in "Daughter of Shanghai" (1937) | Instagram: @korean.americana
Actor Philip Ahn's Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Philip Ahn's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, near the Pantages Theater | Instagram: @grapefruitscent

Initially, there were multiple sites in consideration for the Korean Friendship Bell, but the space that would become Angels Gate Park turned out to be a perfect fit. The hilltop park had been part of Fort MacArthur, which was a U.S. Army base from 1914 to 1974, and was transferred to the City of Los Angeles following its closure. While the view certainly made this spot idyllic, there was something else that appealed to Korean government officials who visited to scout a location for the gift: The name.

"We interviewed one of the officials that came and chose the site and he said that what sealed the deal was the fact that it was named MacArthur," says Lee. Fort MacArthur was named for Lt. General Arthur MacArthur, whose son became the famed general Douglas MacArthur. "Everybody in Korea knows Douglas MacArthur because he was the hero of Inch'on Landing, the commander of the allied forces that repelled North Korean invasion and saved South Korea," says Lee. That connection was apt for a monument that would also be a tribute to both Korean War veterans and the Korean troops who allied with the United States in the recently-ended Vietnam War.

View from the Korean Bell of Friendship
View from the Korean Bell of Friendship  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

The inspiration for the Korean Friendship Bell, the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, dates to 771 and is considered one of the country's national treasures. "For almost a millennia, that was considered one of the largest bells in existence," says Lee. As it turns out, making a near-replica of it, even in the 20th century, was an immense undertaking. Crafting the bell required almost a year's worth of work from nine bell masters, plus the support of nearly 20,000 workers. While the bell was forged in Korea, another team of craftspeople and workers spent almost a year in the former Fort MacArthur barracks at Angels Gate Park while they built the pavilion.

It took two tries to complete the Korean Friendship Bell. The first bell developed a crack. The second was completed in June of 1976, which left too little time for it to be ship to San Pedro before the bicentennial. Instead, it was rung on the Fourth of July in Busan, Korea and then made the month-and-a-half journey to Los Angeles. The Korean Friendship Bell was rung for the first time in its permanent spot on October 3, 1976.

"Every time you ring it, it's almost like offering a prayer that would be universal, because it doesn't require language, everybody can feel the vibration and sense it."

Lee himself remembers visiting the Korean Friendship Bell with his family as a child. Years later, after he had moved to Torrance and had his own family, he took his kids to the site and saw that it was in need of TLC. He eventually learned that maintaining the bell had become difficult because there weren't people in Los Angeles at that time with the expertise to care for it. In 2006, though, he became part of a new committee that had formed expressly to restore and preserve the Korean Friendship Bell. It took years, and some luck, to find someone who could restore the Korean Friendship Bell. A member of the KFBPC came across an old magazine with an ad for a company that mentioned its work on the Friendship Bell. The group tried calling but got no response. Then, one member happened to travel to Korea and stopped by the business, only to see that it was closed. "We were at a dead end," says Lee. One day, though, the KFBPC received a response from one of those voicemails they had left. The person they were trying to reach was the last surviving bell master from the original project and had just retired. However, his pupil was available and, in 2012, he and a crew spent 10 months at Angels Gate Park restoring the bell.

The Korean Friendship Bell rings five times a year. You can hear it on New Year's Eve, Korean American Day, Fourth of July, Korean Liberation Day and on Constitution Day. Additionally, they hold a maintenance ring on the first Saturday of every month, which is open to the public. (The monthly maintenance ring has been on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

If you visit when the Korean Friendship Bell is ringing, you will hear it 33 times. "It's meant to tune the internal vibration of all who listen to the bell," says Lee. "It's meant to bring about clarity, peace and harmony to all who listen."

He adds, "Every time you ring it, it's almost like offering a prayer, that would be universal, because it doesn't require language, everybody can feel the vibration and sense it. That's one of the reasons why we're so interested in making sure it stays true and in tune and we invite as many people to come up and listen to it whenever they have a chance."