Since the Korean War began 65 years ago, families have been divided
Thousands of people are on a waiting list to be reunited in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea
Every night she returns to the home, calling her children’s names. The snowstorm is blinding. She can’t get inside the house, where her three children – a 2-year-old son, 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son – live. Un Chin Lee screams, “Don’t cry! Mommy’s here!”
Then Lee wakes up. She tries to shake the dream she’s had nearly every night for 65 years. But the nightmare of her reality continues. Her children are trapped in North Korea. She has not seen, touched or heard from them since 1950, when the Korean War began. Lee doesn’t even have a picture. She can only hope they are still alive.
She relies on a mental image of the last time she saw her children at her mother’s home. They were playing, far enough away that she could slip out the door without them noticing. It would be easier on them, she convinced herself.
Lee could smell war coming on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean government ordered all young men to report for military duty. Lee and her husband believed it would be his death sentence. They hatched a plan to skirt the conscription – flee far into South Korea together and stay with relatives. Lee would return to her mother’s house and reunite with her children the following week.
North Korea invaded South Korea just days after Lee and her husband slipped into the South. For the next three years, a bloody war waged across a land mass barely the size of California. The war would eventually kill more than 2 million Koreans and 36,574 U.S. military servicemen.
“I left them without saying goodbye,” Lee says from her home in a low-income senior center in Chicago. She smooths her short gray hair, arthritic fingers pressing wiry, permed pieces in place. Her spine is stooped at age 93 and wrinkles weave deeply into a face that has seen too much.
“How much did they cry for their mother?” she asks, knowing her imagination is all that can answer. “They must have cried so much; their hearts hurt so much.”
“I’m living,” she continues, beckoning to the memory, “holding on with the hope I will one day see you.”
The war with no end
The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, ceasing the battles between North Korea, China and United Nations forces. The agreement redrew the 38th parallel, which had divided North and South at the end of WWII, into a buffer zone called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.
Today, the 160-mile border is lined with barbed wire, weaponry and stone-faced military men – in stark contrast to its name. The Korean War officially never ended. The DPRK is the world’s most isolated nation. Its borders are closed; North Korean citizens cannot leave.
On either side of the border are an unknown number of Korean families that have been separated since 1953. Figures in North Korea are not obtainable, and data in South Korea, advocates believe, has been tainted through postwar nationalistic politics and time. But advocates in the United States frequently cite this estimate: approximately 100,000 Korean-Americans are separated from relatives trapped in the North.
“Every day counts. Time is running out,” says Chahee Lee Stanfield, executive director of the National Coalition for the Divided Families. “In 10 years, they’ll all be gone.”
Stanfield herself was separated from her father when she was sent out of North Korea during the Korean War. He died in North Korea as an older man, unable to say goodbye to his wife or daughter. Stanfield, who emigrated to the United States, has heard similar stories from many others. Yet these personal tales are often lost among reports of North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric and nuclear ambitions.
“This is not a political matter,” says Stanfield. “This is a humanitarian issue. We would like to see the U.S. government take an initiative in opening up a dialogue with North Korea. And North Korea might respond.”
Stanfield says she has no choice but to remain hopeful, even as the dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea remains virtually nonexistent under the DPRK’s young leader, Kim Jong Un.
Any government-sanctioned reunions between rapidly aging relatives at the DMZ has been part of the political volley between the ever-fighting North and South. The waiting list for DMZ reunions has thousands of names on it. A computer selects who will see their surviving relatives. Even if your name gets selected, Pyongyang has frequently canceled them at the last minute amid disputes about military drills in the South.
The last reunions occurred in early 2014. The reunions before that were in 2010.
’We meet again, finally’
Those who are lucky enough to reunite with their relatives say it’s like finally knowing their place in the world.
“I saw my brother – immediately recognized (him),” says Min Yong Lee. “I feel like it’s a mirror. He was me. We meet again, finally. (I’m) so happy.”
Lee (no relation to Un Chin Lee) was 9 years old and living with his mother and two older sisters in South Korea at the start of the war. Four of his older siblings were in North Korea. More than 50 years passed before Lee managed to get a visa and enter North Korea in 2002, embracing his older brother.
“It is not 50 years separation,” he felt, but “several months, several years – the closeness I feel. The 50 years is gone.”
The men exchanged pictures. Lee flipped through them, seeing nephews and nieces, entire sections of his family that he would never meet. It was a satisfaction that he’d felt only as a child.
Before, to remember his siblings only brought pain, he says. After the armistice, South Korea’s government became nationalistic, treating suspected loyalists to the North as spies. Lee’s siblings, trapped in the North, raised suspicion among neighbors and local authorities. Then there was the grief – Lee’s mother thought about committing suicide but stopped at the last moment.
“I tried to forget and ignore them,” Lee says of his lost siblings. “In a way, I hated them in my mind. They destroyed everything – me, my whole family.”
Lee and his mother stopped talking about his lost siblings. He buried himself in his studies at Seoul University and became a religious scholar. In 1976, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and three children. The former scholar opened up a small retail store in downtown Atlanta, selling Michael Jackson apparel. The family moved to Boston and opened up a fine jewelry store. More adept at English, Lee reengaged in his studies and joined the Buddhist studies and Asian history department at Harvard University.
But Lee’s mother had a dying wish: For her son to seek out her lost children.
For two days, Pyongyang allowed Lee to fulfill that wish.
“How lucky I am, how happy I am,” says Lee. “The rest of those separated people, maybe 10% meet again and reunited? It’s ridiculous. We have to learn from war.”
In Chicago, Un Chin Lee is not as lucky. For decades, she carried three sets of clothing in preparation for the day she would finally meet her two sons and her daughter. They began as children’s clothes and then became adult, finally middle age, and then clothes designed for the elderly. When Lee moved into a senior home, she had to downsize, donating the clothes and, in turn, losing the only tangible reminder of her children. She’s tried to find them on her own but has been hampered by North Korea’s information control and her own lack of political and financial means.
At 93, her health and memory grows more frail. Most people fear losing those precious moments. For Un Chin Lee, it is equally cruel and merciful.