When I came upon the photo of two elderly sisters at a recent North-South family reunion, I just sat there staring, letting the moment sink in – their age, their time apart, their brief time together again, the stories they’d share and wouldn’t be able to share (due to the only time that Pyongyang is in favor of careful monitoring).There have been a total of four family reunions thus far. The most recent one consisted of 99 men and women meeting for the first time in over half a century their siblings, spouses, parents, children. As many as 10 million people were separated from their families since Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea in 1950, sparking a three year civil war that has yet to officially end.
I assume South Korea still televises and reports on these reunions. What must the hundreds of thousands who failed to make the reunion lottery have thought as they watched others get to say goodbye to their loved ones before they passed away? I’m sure it only poured salt into wounds that have been yearly reopened each Chusok when the majority of citizens travel long miles for the annual family get together tradition – a tradition they take for granted without a second thought to the hundreds of thousands of mothers and brothers in their 80s and 90s who will never get to know what happened to their loved ones across a border – a border supported as much by the majority of South Korean citizens as by the Pyongyang elite.
I still remember one photo from last year’s reunion of a mother looking in disbelief at her daughter, a flight attendant who was kidnapped, taken hostage, and settled into a new home by North Korean agents. What must have the daughter been thinking while her Pyongyang-sponsored husband and her kidnappers-now-monitors sat next to her and smilingly watched as her mother stroked her hair and gazed upon a person whose last image in her memory was that of a college-aged child who was now almost a mirror image of her mother’s face when she last saw her leave for the airport.
No doubt Korean history is rich, vibrant and deep. Watch the movie Sopyonjae to experience just one sample. But can one deny the tragic nature of modern Korea as we know it?
Korean women and children are systematically kidnapped by Japanese soldiers and brutalized in rape camps during WWII. The South Korean government daily adds to the tragedy by abandoning their plight to this day, submitting to the economic might of a Japan that continues to refuse to apologize or to inform its people of their history’s crimes against humanity. The brothels continue in South Korea, servicing now U.S. military personnel. Though not the equivalent of rape camps, the shameful amount of sexual exploitation going on in South Korea, ignored by Seoul and thus taken advantage of by G.I. Joe, makes their moral stench vomit-inducing nonetheless.
Incidentally, what does draw the popular ire of the country? A Jay Leno joke about South Koreans eating dogs. But I digress.
Millions of separated family members sob to their graves while the majority of South Koreans desire reunification only after most of the separated family members die without being able to meet their loved ones; a sooner reunification would simply not be in their own economic interest.
North Koreans pride themselves on self-sufficiency – juche – all the while utterly dependent, first, on subsidies from the Soviet Union, now, on the ones they daily castigate as imperialists and capitalist-roaders. Indeed as Pyongyang daily and publicly castigates the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, secretly they whisper appreciation for the American presence without which their regime would lose its primary rason d’tre – to keep the foreign devils at bay – that instant.
Even the trivial but poignantly representative events at the World Series revolving around pitcher Kim Byung Hyun seem in line with the tragedy that is modern Korea.
Today South Koreans are priding themselves as co-host of World Cup 2002. North Korea is not participating but this has not stopped South Korea from co-hosting the event with a suitable substitute, nor from promoting the event as “Korea-Japan” even though “South Korea-Japan” would be more accurate. Does this tragedy have no ending?