The issue of divided families faces increasingly desperate demographics. Just do the math; a child who was 10 at the end of the Korean war is going on 70; a child who was 10 at the time of independence of the two Koreas in 1948 is going on 75. When we factor in declining life expectancy in North Korea, time is simply running out. The hopes are increasingly centered on cousins rather than parents, siblings or children
Jason Ahn and Eugene Chung have made a moving film on the American dimension of this issue called Divided Families; we had the pleasure of screening it at a Korean film festival at UC San Diego and Eugene Chung was able to join us. The filmmakers 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 simply let’s them tell their diverse stories. These range from an actual visit to Pyonyang by Won Guk Yun, who managed 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 with declining convictions.
North Korea has been utterly mercenary on the issue, rationing family visits for quid-pro-quos during the Kim Dae Jung years and shutting them down entirely during the LMB period. This policy generates predictable second-order problems, such as the rise of brokers who sell South Koreans and Korean-Americans hopes; in the film, Kwang Cho Choe is swindled out of $10,000 by a network of Chinese-Koreans promising to locate his family.
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 Steve Bosworth points out in the film.
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.
Both have gone on to other day jobs. But the team is looking to screen the film at other venues. If your organization is interested in hosting the film or if you or your students want to join the effort around the film, feel free to contact the team at email@example.com.
Twitter: @dividedfamilies and @genechung