The Debate | Opinion

70 Years of Separation: The Families Who Remain Divided by the Korean War

Whether driven apart by the war or through more recent adoptions and defections, Korean Americans have few options for reuniting with their families.

By Eugene Lee and Paul K. Lee for
70 Years of Separation: The Families Who Remain Divided by the Korean War

A Korean War orphan sits among the wreckage of homes near the Korean front lines on Feb. 16, 1951.

Credit: AP Photo/James Matenhoff

Hyun Joon Lee, born in 1927 in North Korea, was lying in bed with a respirator at his home in northern Virginia when he recorded the following message for President Donald Trump:

Though I can’t speak English very well, I am a U.S. citizen. I have lived in the U.S. for over 40 years. Please help us. Even animals get to be with their families, but I have been separated from my family for over 70 years. My tears have dried, but I still want to see my family. How can I live with leaving my wife and child in North Korea?

Just a few months later, Lee passed away without fulfilling his dying wish of finding out what happened to his wife and son, much less being physically reunited with them.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, which claimed up to 3 million civilian lives, solidified the division of the Korean Peninsula across the 38th Parallel, and ended in a temporary armistice agreement. Decades of ideological entrenchment and economic bifurcation have made this conflict seemingly intractable and, despite recent diplomatic efforts, a peace agreement remains a distant pipe dream.

Though the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. stands in commemoration of the conflict and the recovery of prisoner of war remains has been a major milestone in healing the scars of conflict between the United States and North Korea, Lee and others like him are a living testament to the war’s lasting legacies of family separation. The history of families divided by the Korean War is, like that of any war-torn country, complex. It encompasses not only the stories of Lee and others like him who were separated from their families by a closed border, but also those of countless children sent abroad for adoption and North Korean defectors who continue to leave their families behind in order to escape an oppressive regime.

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Diplomatic overtures between Seoul and Pyongyang have enabled more than 44,000 families to meet briefly over 21 government-sponsored family reunions since 1985, with the most recent in 2018. These family reunion programs are only temporary, and the high level of media attention intrudes on privacy. However, American citizens have yet to be able to pursue even this limited opportunity. Despite recent bipartisan legislation supporting US-North Korea family reunions such as the Divided Families Reunification Act and H.R. 410 (both of which passed the House of Representatives in March) the deadlock in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang continues to prevent elderly Korean Americans from reuniting with their families.

The demographics of divided families in South Korea can help give us a sense of the gravity and urgency of the situation. As of November 2019, the average age of South Korean divided family members was 81, and more than 60 percent of the 133,370 applicants who applied for the lottery for inter-Korean family reunions since 1988 have already passed away. In the United States, it has been difficult to account for the number of Korean Americans who are divided family members due to both language and cultural barriers as well as a fear that attempting to make contact might incur consequences for their relatives in North Korea. As a result, experts have applied the ratio of divided families in South Korea onto the U.S. Census data to arrive at a tentative estimate of 100,000 people.

By contrast, the records on adoption are much clearer. Of the roughly 2 million children orphaned or separated from their families during the Korean War, at least 200,000 children were sent abroad for adoption. Korean adoptees comprise the largest adoptee population from a single country, and have served as a model for other intercountry adoptions around the world. Underlying the successful establishment of adoption agencies, however, are fruitless searches for birth families and questions of belonging. The Overseas Koreans Foundation in 2006 estimated that only 2.7 percent of Korean adoptees had been reunited with their birth families, and revisions to Korea’s Special Adoption Law regarding birth family searches were not made until 2011. Beyond barriers to discovering family history, specific demographics face unique challenges. Mixed-race children of American or U.N. soldiers face barriers to acceptance; many were given up due to parents’ fears that they would be outcasts in a homogenous country. The precaution was not without merit — even adoptees of full Korean ancestry face stigmas due to a cultural emphasis on family. Fortunately, there is hope for reform of adoption policies and a shift in cultural attitudes. Just this past week, a Seoul court announced a landmark ruling in the case of a Korean American adoptee named Kara Bos, who won a paternity lawsuit.

The exclusion felt by adoptees may be even more complicated in the case of North Korean defectors, many of whom fled the North following the country’s disastrous famine in the mid-1990s. Most leave their relatives in the dark, given the enormous risks of defection and the insular nature of the surveillance state. Since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power in 2012, the number of defectors has dropped significantly due to the harsher punishments. However, individuals continue to take the risk, with about 1,000 defectors escaping to South Korea each year. Many of the nearly 31,000 North Korean defectors who have resettled in South Korea (along with more than 200 defectors in the United States) maintain links with family and friends back home through Chinese cellphones and other private means. Though NGOs such as Liberty in North Korea work to keep families together through chain defections, the vast majority have no official channel for seeing their families. Though defectors face suspicions that make it difficult to assimilate into South Korean society, many reject a quiet life in order to denounce the North Korean government. Many lead human rights organizations in which they call for reunification, and write best-selling memoirs that offer an intimate glimpse into life under the authoritarian state. If there was ever any doubt that South Koreans could ever fully accept their northern counterparts, it was blown away by North Korean defectors Thae Yong-Ho and Ji Seong Ho’s wins of constituency seats in the South Korean National Assembly just this past April.

Though many who experienced the war firsthand have already passed, the aftermath of the conflict lives on in a younger generation of adoptees and new waves of North Korean defectors. This multifaceted separation of families following the division of a country is not unique to Korea. Other nations such as Ireland and Cyprus are also divided. The similarities reach beyond the lasting fracture of families to also include stories of hope. Irish families of mixed Protestant and Catholic ancestry have overcome tensions, while Greek and Turkish Cypriots have continued to practice their history of communal existence. What makes family separation in Korea unique, however, are the strict and enduring restrictions on travel and communication between the North and South (even mainland China and Taiwan established the “three links” of mail, commerce, and transportation in the 1990s, and began direct flights across the Taiwan Strait in 2008). Despite attempts at peace through cultural exchanges and economic cooperation, Korea remains technically in a state of war, while divided families bear the brunt of its indefinite costs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, two years before the outbreak of the Korean War. In it, “family” is affirmed as a “natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Had governments heeded these aspirational words and protected the human right of family reunion, Lee and untold others would have been able to receive closure. Seventy years later, the Korean War remains an ongoing, lived struggle for these families, whether they are divided by a sealed border, adoption paperwork, or fear of an authoritarian state.

While time is running out for this first group of divided families, it is up to governments and grassroots efforts by younger generations to help ascertain the status of relatives in North Korea and push for normal, private, and regular correspondence. Furthermore, the progress that continues to be made by Korean adoptees and North Korean defectors is paving the way not only for diplomacy on the peninsula but also for policies regarding adoptees and defectors from other countries all over the world. Though the Korean War is a prime example of the various ways a geopolitical conflict can divide families, it also offers a model for solidarity, cooperation, and coordination between different generations and groups that, despite all odds, continue to persevere in search of family.

Eugene Lee and Paul K. Lee co-host the Divided Families Podcast, a platform for connecting stories of family separation, which can be found @dividedfamiliespodcast.