Divided Families

March 30, 2016 7:00 AM

Back in 2012, we posted on a film that Jason Ahn and Eugene Chung made on the American dimension of the divided family issue. The film screened at small festivals, and the directors have now made the film available online here. They estimate that as many as 100,000 first generation Korean-Americans have immediate family members in North Korea; we don’t know how they got to this number but it is not implausible given the size of the community.

The film follows the stories of five Koreans who emigrated from South Korea to the US and let’s them tell their diverse stories; it is heart-wrenching from the opening, in part because of aging and the pervasive sense of loss. The protagonists range from Won Guk Yun, who managed a visit to Pyongyang to see his two sisters, to the determined activism on the part of the remarkable Chahee Stanfield, to the more distant hopes of Young Shik Kang, a New York taxi driver who expresses his hopes with declining convictions. Kwang Cho Choe recounts how he was swindled out of $10,000 by a network of Chinese-Koreans promising to locate his family.

North Korea has been utterly mercenary on the issue, rationing family visits for quid-pro-quos during the Kim Dae Jung years and then largely shutting them down during the LMB period after the Chuseok visits of 2010. During the Park administration, the North Korean extortion racket has once again gone through predictable ups-and-downs, detailed on the MOU website. After the fireworks on the peninsula in early 2013, family visits were a useful tool for reconciliation. President Park proposed reunions in her Liberation day speech in August 2013, followed by Red Cross meetings that agreed to a series of actual and video reunions over the course of the fall. The South than went through the painful process of selecting candidates via lottery and finalizing lists before the North “postponed” the visits in September.

In the August 25 [2015] Agreement following the land mine incident on the DMZ, the North once again agreed to North-South Red Cross talks and family reunions during Chuseok. This time, two rounds of reunions were in fact held, representing the 20th such event with about 200 Southerners meeting about 570 relatives from the North at Mt. Kumgang. BBC coverage captures both the sorrow and the demographics as this generation passes into history. With events on the peninsula earlier this year, the issue has once again fallen into abeyance.

The policy implications of the film are not immediately clear. Unlike South Korea, which maintains a formal registry of divided families, there are no mechanisms for family members in the United States to identify or register their interest in family unification. Even if they were, the prospects for doing anything on this issue are limited, as the late Steve Bosworth points out in the film. The issue, however, has surfaced in past US legislation. The North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 directly mentions the divided families issue twice, requiring the State Department to submit a report with estimates on the total number of US citizens with family in the DPRK, and stipulating that any non-humanitarian aid to North Korea be contingent on substantial progress made toward family reunions. And more recently, Senator Mark Kirk (R., Illinois) introduced a new bill S.2657  to bring this issue to light by requiring consultation with South Korea on the issue.

The making of the film is a story in itself; the two talented producers started with no film experience and produced this interesting documentary through sheer entrepreneurial will and assistance from over 65 volunteers. The two are now forming an advocacy group called National Coalition for Divided Familiesto keep the issue alive across generations.

More From

Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

More on This Topic

North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)

November 8, 2017
North Korea: Witness to Transformation
March 14, 2016
North Korea: Witness to Transformation
November 19, 2015