Divided Families

Last night, I watched a documentary former Fulbrighters made about Korean families divided by the Korean War.

The focus was Korean Americans whose immediate family members are still in North Korea. I was thankful the room was dark, because tears were literally streaming down my face.

It got me thinking.

I am living far away from all of my family members right now, but I have every intention of seeing them again. In fact, I get to communicate with them regularly through email and video chat. I get to hear their voices on the phone. I get to see their faces on Skype.

But what if a war suddenly broke out, and I never got to see them again?

What if the internet broke down and there was no way of Skyping or emailing them? What if there was no way to even determine whether they were alive? And what if that status of uncertainty lasted not just a couple weeks, but over 50 years?

In the confusion of war, you never know what the outcome will be. You hear rumors of approaching troops, theories about which side will prevail, guesses about which course of action would be best. So a father and two sons head to the South, the grandmother and daughters staying at the house where it seems safer. The plan is to reconnect in a couple weeks, but suddenly a line is drawn that cannot be crossed or even communicated across. A line that has remained firm for almost 60 years now.

The documentary opened with two 할머니’s (Korean grandmas) singing a song.

They are singing about the 오빠 (older brother) they long to see and will never forget. I assumed these were two sisters singing about an older brother that got left behind in North Korea and was touched by the tears in their eyes, but later in the film, it was revealed that these were actually two sisters living in North Korea whose two older brothers left to go South during the war and whom they never saw again.  

One of the brothers, a main character in the documentary, now has a successful, comfortable life in the US, and after many years, he was able to track down his two sisters. This must have been back when relations were a little better, because he was able to go to North Korea and actually stay with his sisters for 3 days.

He filmed them singing that song on a little camcorder he brought with him, and when I watched them sing it a second time, knowing they were singing to the older brother the song was about, my tears started flowing. (When I looked at them, I saw my own grandmother—that so easily could have been her!)

The most heartbreaking part was watching the siblings saying goodbye.

50 years after leaving them behind in North Korea, their long-lost 오빠 found a way back to them! Miraculously, the North Korean government allowed them to reconnect! Older brothers are supposed to protect and look after their younger sisters, and after 50 years, he is finally able to give his sisters the loving advice and admonition and affection he has wanted to. But then he has to leave them again.

When one of the sisters said to him, “Now that you’ve found us and seen us, you don’t have to worry about us anymore, so just take care of yourself,” I broke down.

Honestly, I don’t even know how to end this post.

I have no way of helping these families or single-handedly bringing peace to this peninsula. But unlike most South Koreans, who have learned to cope by becoming apathetic, I choose to care, even when I’m not sure how my caring will help. I let these things soak into my spirit and ponder them in my heart, I pursue the small opportunities that present themselves (to tutor North Korean refugees, volunteer in Korean orphanages, etc.), and most of all, I commit myself to prayer.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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