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KOREAN STUDIES REVIEW
Korea’s Divided Families: Fifty Years of Separation, by James Foley. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. xii + 212 pages (ISBN 0-415-29738-9, cloth)
reviewed by Heike Hermanns
University of Glasgow
[This review first appeared in Acta Koreana, 6.2 (July 2003): 161-165. Acta Koreana is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]
The division of the Korean peninsula is one of the last remaining relics of the Cold War. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, there has been virtually no contact between the citizens of the two countries, including the many families who were divided during the turmoil that engulfed Korea after liberation from Japanese rule and during the three-year Korean War. The problems posed by these divided families is a pressing humanitarian issue that has been used for political ends by the governments on both sides of the 38 th parallel over the last five decades. Most families do not know the fate of their relatives on the other side of the border. Following the historic summit of 2000 in Pyongyang, there have been several rounds of reunions, but the number of families affected remains low. For many of the first generation divided families time is running out, as many pass away before seeing their relatives again. Academic circles both in Korea and abroad have largely ignored the issue, so James Foley’s book Korea’s Divided Families is an important contribution to modern Korean studies.
The core of this study is a series of interviews with South Korean participants in the recent rounds of family reunions. This data is supplemented by earlier research on divided families by the author for his Ph.D. thesis. Given the lack of access to North Korea and divided families there, it can only cover one side of the story. The book is divided into six chapters and an appendix containing interviews with seven participants in the first three rounds of family reunions in 2000 and 2001. Before analysing the interviews in detail the author provides three chapters detailing the historical, demographic and political background to the problem. Family histories and events around the reunions are the main topics of the next two chapters, exploring the circumstances of separation and thoughts and feelings during the reunion meetings. The last chapter outlines the problems and prospects facing the divided families within the framework of the troubled relations that exist between the two Korean states.
The roots of the problem go further back than the division of the peninsula in 1945, as the first chapter explains. Koreans had been leaving the Korean kingdom for Manchuria, Russian Siberia, Japan and North America since the late 19 th century. During Japanese colonial rule further movement took place. In the beginning, nationalistic Koreans left for Manchuria and China to continue their opposition against colonial rule. The Japanese encouraged poor farmers from the south of Korea to find work in industry. The preferred place for work was Japan, but Koreans also went to the developing industrial complexes of northern Korea and Manchuria during the second half of colonial rule. During the Pacific War (1941–1945) Japan had to rely on the forced recruitment of workers to overcome labour shortages in Japanese companies. After liberation in August 1945, a substantial number of Koreans returned to their hometowns and villages from Manchuria, China and Japan.
The ideological polarisation of the two occupation powers induced further population movement. Left-wing supporters in the south faced harassment and some had to move north to escape persecution. Many Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese in the north had fled south for similar reasons. A food shortage after liberation also made some families leave the north. The Korean War created more refugees and divided families. While in the first few weeks the northern troops took control of most of the peninsula, they were driven back by UN troops under U.S. leadership in late 1950. They in turn had to retreat to the 38 th parallel once Chinese troops entered the war. Both sides forcefully recruited soldiers. Voluntary or forced co-operation with one side meant that once it retreated the ‘collaborators’ had to fear reprisals from the other side, and many chose to leave with the troops for their own safety. Others fled from the heavy U.S. bombardments of the North. When leaving their hometown and families, most of the refugees thought the move was temporary and did not expect the division to last for more than 50 years.
The second chapter is concerned with the size and scale of the problem. The numbers of divided families have been contested by various groups in the south and no data is available from the north. As the author shows, there are no reliable sources about population size and movement during the crucial years of the late 1940s and early 1950s in South Korea. The return of millions of displaced persons after 1945, the division of the peninsula, the effects of the war, and the break-down of effective government mean that there is no reliable demographic material available. Over the years many different estimates have been made with quite different results. The number of refugees during the liberation period stands at somewhere between 150,000 and 3.5–4 million. Estimated numbers for the Korean War period range from 400,000 to 650,000. Using the data available the author estimates that 1.39 million North Koreans moved south, 740,000 in the liberation period and 650,000 during the war (p. 56).
Considering these estimates, the author concludes that there were about 500,000 to 750,000 divided families in both North and South Korea in the late 20 th century. This is at odds with the numbers circulated by the South Korean Red Cross and the ‘Office for the Administration of the Five Northern Provinces’ (OAFNP), which claimed over 7.2 million divided family members in South Korea in 1991 (p. 54), a number also often quoted in the press. It seems that even simple issues such as the size of the problem are still used in propaganda battles by the two regimes. When the first round of reunions was announced in South Korea, 116,460 individuals applied for a reunion. By the end of June 2001, nearly 11 percent of the original applicants had already died, demonstrating the need for further and speedier reunions (p. 63).
Chapter 3 turns to the political situation on the peninsula and how this influenced the divided families. Over the years, the issue of divided families has been used by both sides for political point-scoring. The southern side regards the problem as a humanitarian concern separate from the other issues of reunification, while the northern side views it from the broader context of reunification itself. During the 1950s the issue of family separation was used for propaganda purposes, and no progress was made. The first negotiations between the two regimes were the 1971–72 Red Cross talks, but differences about the amount of movement across the DMZ meant that no solution was reached. After negotiations in 1985, one round of exchange visits by 50 family members from each side took place, but again the process stalled. Finally, Kim Dae-jung was more successful in 2000. In return for financial aid the north agreed to more reunions and so far six rounds have taken place.
The propaganda from both sides always alleges that the move to the other side was politically or ideologically motivated. For many refugees, however, the reasons for leaving the north were manifold, as the author’s interviews showed. These included avoidance of fighting and/or conscription, better educational opportunities and, not least, the fear of U.S. bombardments (p. 69). In the south, those who moved northwards were regarded as ‘guilty by association’ and their families had suffered discrimination and reprisals. One interviewee explained, for example, that his military career was cut short because of his brother in the north. In North Korea, those with relatives in the south suffered even more. Many southern families thus make no efforts to trace their family members for fear of making their own situation in the south and that of their relatives in North Korea worse.
The following two chapters turn to the experiences of the interviewees who participated in the family reunions. Firstly, family histories are explored where life under Japanese rule and the events leading to the separation play a major part. Only one of the interviewees had a relative who had political reasons for leaving, while others were forcefully recruited or ‘just went north’ with the retreating troops. Only one participant previously attempted to discover relatives in the north, while the others waited until after the 2000 summit. The democratisation of South Korea had changed the climate so that they now felt secure to come into the open about their relatives. Over the years there have been other limited ways of making contact, mostly through overseas Koreans who have access to North Korea, but the Ministry of Reunification estimates that only about 800 families managed to make some contact in this way (p.116).
The next chapter deals with the reunion. For many participants it was a traumatic event and their narratives bring this to life. Over a period of two or three days they met their relatives for the first time in over 50 years for just a couple of hours. Participants went through a variety of emotions, from happiness to confusion and rejection. One man describes how his daughter, whom he had never seen before, greeted him in Pyongyang with a formal bow and the question “Father, why have you come?” (p. 130). The ideological differences between the two nations influenced the meetings too, and many did not feel free to speak their mind. Material standards were quite different and many southerners gave expensive presents and cash to their relatives. Participants also complained about the lack of privacy for the meetings. The initial meetings took place in the full glare of the media spotlight, making a very difficult meeting even harder. Furthermore, ‘minders’ from both the north and south were always present. Once the meeting was over, participants had to come to terms with the fact that they probably had seen their relative for the last time, since there are no established measures for further contact. Some have managed to exchange letters, but this remains at the whim of the northern regime.
The conclusion is aptly titled “Hopes for the Future”. Here, the author presents factors militating for and against a resolution of the divided family problem and measures to facilitate this resolution. On the negative side is the deteriorating economic situation in the north. There is also a difference in attitudes towards families. In the south civic groups and political parties have taken up this humanitarian concern while in the north the state is put above the individual, and attempts to raise the issue are seen as an attack on the system. The relationship with the United States remains an issue of contention, as the nuclear crisis that has flamed up again in late 2002 shows. The proposed continuation of the ‘sunshine policy’ by the newly elected South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun is a positive sign for the divided families. Family reunions remain part of the competition between the two political and economic systems so there is a need to find an appropriate mechanism to effectively address the problem outside this competition. The author suggests implementing methods to trace relatives, encouraging exchanges in writing and by phone, establishing a permanent meeting place, and an ongoing system to make the reunions less dependent on inter-Korean relations.
There have been further rounds of reunions since the publication of the book and a general agreement about a permanent meeting place in the Kŭmgang (Diamond) Mountains in North Korea has been reached. It remains to be seen if this will materialise, given the problems the current nuclear crisis has brought up again. In a reuniting Korea, the families could play an important role in bridging the ideological barrier that divides the people in the two states on the Korean peninsula.
This book provides timely input to the discussion about the humanitarian, political and economic dimensions of Korean reunification policies. It is a pity that further input from the northern side cannot be obtained, but this does not limit the function and significance of the study. Finally, this interesting and insightful book certainly deserves to be published as a more affordable paperback edition.
Hermanns, Heike 2006
Review of Korea’s Divided Families: Fifty Years of Separation, by James Foley (2003)
Korean Studies Review 2006, no. 04
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr06-04.htm
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