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Sea of Tears: The Tragedy of Families Split by the Korean War

This past July marked the 65th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War. In addition to leaving nearly 5 million dead, injured, or missing, this bloody conflict forcibly separated nearly 10 million Korean families on either side of the 38th parallel.

Since the 1980s, a mere 20 face-to face reunions have been held under tightly controlled conditions, with the last such event occurring in 2015. These reunions are infrequent one-time events–no one has ever been given a second chance to see their relatives on the other side of the border. Family members who have been separated since the war are given a single opportunity to see long-lost loved ones for a few short hours, after which they must once again separate. In South Korea, the majority of the over 132,000 separated family members are 80 or older, and more than half of those applying for reunions between 1988 and 2018 have died without ever having had the chance to see their loved ones in the across the border. At this point, in order for all surviving separated family members to be able to see their relatives in the North at least once before they perish, a minimum of 7,300 reunions must occur per year.

As a result of the 2018 Panmunjom declaration, North and South Korea agreed to hold an additional reunion this week.  South Korea uses a lottery system to randomly select a small number of surviving family members for reunion events, and this year’s event will include only 98 elderly survivors from South. A journalist who was in attendance during the public screening for the initial participant pool described the Red Cross office where the event was held as “a sea of tears” echoing with the cries of grief-stricken elderly survivors who did not make the list.  One 95-year old man, recognizing this as his final opportunity to see his loved ones, begged the government to open the demilitarized zone for a single month so that all separated family members would have the chance to see their loved ones at least once. “I don’t remember how many times I applied.  President Moon and Chairman Kim can meet. Why can’t I meet my family in the North?” A 90-year-old woman refused to leave the building, pleading to be allowed to see the 3-year old daughter she left in North Korea over 68 years ago.

When I visited South Korea in May as part of an international peace delegation, I met a female peace activist whose elderly mother, a farmer in a South Korean border town, was separated from her family during the war.  She gave me a special gift: a handmade scarf upon which was inscribed a poem written by her mother.  While working the fields, her mother would gaze at her hometown across the border—easily visible on a clear day—wondering ceaselessly about the family she left behind more than six decades ago.

The Thousand-Mile River
Lee Bum-og

The narrow river separating us may as well be a thousand miles wide
I can see a home to which I cannot return
The Han River that meets the Imjin and the Yaesung flows to the ocean
It is said that humans are highest order of creation
But we are more wretched than any beast
Birds fly to their homes and return
To my eyes, birds scorn humans.
How can there be a half-century of separation between brothers and sisters, between parents and children?
Amid the rain of bombs,
I fled to save my life
The friends who fled have all dispersed here and there
With silvery hair they are soon to depart this world.
Can those who still live ever feel the soil of home beneath their feet?

Her searing poem depicts her life in a divided Korea as a state of permanent longing that is coming to a bitter end. For her and tens of thousands like her, every day counts. It is absolutely essential that we work to prioritize the regularization of North-South family reunions and the establishment of permanent venues in both North and South Korea for this purpose.

Dr. Simone Chun serves on the Steering Committee of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned About Korea and is a member of the Korea Policy Institute and the Korea Peace Network.  She served as an international women’s delegation of peace to Korea organized by Women Cross  DMZ and Nobel Women’s Initiative.  

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