A Long Separation   오랜 이별

Families split from relatives in North Korea since the Korean War  이산가족

This series looks at South Koreans separated from their family members in North Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice agreement in 1953. As these separated families – or yisan kajok (이산가족), as they’re called in Korean – pass away in the next couple decades, so will all direct family ties and living memories between the two Koreas. Legally, South Koreans can’t have contact – no visits, phone calls, letters or emails – with North Koreans and vice versa, except at periodic Red Cross reunions. It's a unique situation in the aftermath of a modern war. Since there is very little that people can do to help, what’s left is to acknowledge the situation, to learn people’s stories and to respond with compassion. This is what I hope to accomplish with these portraits.

My great uncle, Yu Il-Sang, is my inspiration for this project. In the chaotic months before the Korean War, he moved from the north to the south, leaving his parents and younger sisters behind for what he thought would be a few months. He never saw or heard from them again. All the Korean family holidays I spent with him were filled with tears -- not only from him but from me, too, and other relatives. As we ate dumpling soups and rice cakes, he told stories about his family and he lamented being such a bad son. He was the first person I interviewed and photographed for this project and he died in November 2014, aged 90, without knowing the fate of his parents and sisters. I feel such deep sadness when I think about him being separated from his family all those years.

Separated family members like my great uncle are a largely forgotten group in South Korea and much of the world. They pop into view during the media circus of occasional Red Cross family reunions, the dominant visual narrative for yisan kajok. These images are highly emotional: crying, screaming, hugging. But these photos belie a quiet reality for most separated people: they’ll never see or hear from their family members after the short reunion, and in fact, many thousands of South Koreans separated from their siblings, spouses and children in the north will never be chosen for a reunion; there have been only 20 since they began in 2000. Both the South Korean and North Korean governments use yisan kajok to their own ends. As James Foley wrote in his book, “Korea’s Divided Families: Fifty Years of Separation,” “the South has played on the sympathy the issue evokes both in South Korea and in the international community…the North has used the issue, or more exactly the degree of cooperation it has been prepared to extend in resolving the problem, as a bargaining chip in return for political and economic concessions.” I don’t want to make a political statement with these pictures but I would be foolish not to acknowledge the role of politics in this issue.

Thank you to Jung Jae Eun at the South Korean Red Cross for helping to connect me with yisan kajok, and to Kim Yoola and Lee Hyunseok for their translation and fixing assistance. Thanks also to Catherine Pohl for additional translation help.

Choi Chil-seong, 81, fled to South Korea with his two older sisters during the Korean War, after his parents died when he was younger; he left behind relatives whose names and faces he can’t remember. Though he married in South Korea and had children, now his only wish is to see his hometown. He visits Imjingak, a town on the border with North Korea, “every New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving day hoping to meet people from my hometown. This country is still divided. My only hope is going back to my hometown, but I cannot do that so I come to this place.” To not be able to visit your hometown is one of the saddest situations for a Korean; one well-known Korean song begins, “I miss my hometown and I can’t even go.” The South Korean government sponsors an annual Thanksgiving memorial at Imjingak for people who are separated from their families in the north or who are originally from the north and can’t visit their hometown for the holiday.

최칠성(81)씨는 두 누나와 함께 한국 전쟁 중에 피난을 내려왔다. 부모님은 그가 어렸을 적 돌아가셨고, 그가 두고 내려온 친척들의 이름과 얼굴을 그는 기억하지 못한다. 그가 남한에서 결혼하고 아이를 가졌지만, 그의 유일한 소원은 그의 고향을 다시 보는 것이다. 그는 북한과의 국경에 위치한 임진각을 찾는다. “추석이랑 구정때 꼭 임진각에 와서 차례 지내고 가요. 혹시 또 고향 사람 누구 만날까. 일년에 두번씩 와요. 통일이 안되어 있고, 언제죽을지 모르는데, 내 원이라면 이북 고향에 한번 가는 건데 못가니까 여기라도 와서 차례지내고 소주 한 잔 따르고 하는게 내 인생의 낙이야.” 고향을 찾을 수 없다는 것은 한국 사람들에게는 아주 슬픈 상황이고, 심지어 “고향이 그립지만 갈수조차 없답니다”로 시작하는 유명한 한국 노래도 있을 정도이다. 대한 민국 정부는 북에 가족이 남겨진 사람들이나 북쪽이 고향이기에 명절에 고향을 갈수 없기 때문에 이곳을 찾는 사람들을 위해 매년 임진각에서의 추석 기념행사를 지원하고 있다.

Nam Keung-bong, 87, is searching for his wife and son, who would now be 68 or 69. He’s also hoping to see his little cousin again. He has registered for every North-South family reunion since the first one in 2000 to the most recent one in October 2015, but he has never been selected. “It’s been almost 70 years. Yeah, it was not easy to accept not being chosen. I’ve almost given up. I wasn’t chosen this time.” When asked what he would say if he met his relatives again, he said, “Seeing their faces is more important. Why talk?”

남궁봉(87)씨는 그의 부인과 지금은 예순 여덟가량 되었을 그의 아들을 찾고 있는 중이다. 그는 그의 어린 사촌도 볼 수 있기를 희망한다. 그는 가장 첫 이산가족 상봉이었던 2000년 이후로 2015년 10월의 상봉까지 꾸준히 신청해오고 있다. “70년이 지났지. (상봉에) 안 뽑힌다는 것은 마음아프지. 포기할까도 생각했어. 이번에도 안뽑혔다네.” 그의 가족을 다시 만나면 무슨 말을 할 것이냐는 질문에 그가 대답했다. “얼굴 보는게 더 중요하지, 무슨 말을 어떻게 하는게 뭐 중요해.”

Park Ki-Soo, 84, was 17 when he, his younger brother and two friends left their homes in the north, swimming south across the freezing Imjin River in December 1950. Just a few days before the crossing Mr. Park had been working as a security guard in his neighborhood when, he said, North Korean soldiers threatened to kill him if he didn’t flee. “My siblings and my parents most of all must have missed me,” he said. “They didn’t even have any idea where I went or exactly when, and you know the way parents think of their children – you don’t even have to mention it.” Mr. Park’s brother died right after the Korean War ended. Feeling alone, Mr. Park married as soon as possible and had five children. He wants to see his siblings and parents again or – if they’re no longer alive – find out the dates they died so he can perform traditional Korean rituals for deceased relatives. “I really want to meet them, see them, and it takes time and I’m already old,” he said. “I’m still waiting but I don’t know if it will happen. I hope it happens.”

박기수 (84세)씨는 17세이던1950년 12월 남동생, 두 친구와 북에 있던 집을 떠나 얼어있는 임진강을 헤엄쳐 남으로 왔다. 떠나기 바로 며칠 전까지 동네 순찰대에서 일을 했는데 떠나지 않으면 죽여버리겠다고 북한 군인들이 위협을 했다. “형제자매와 부모님이 나를 얼마나 보고 싶어 했을까요” 라고 말하며 “그들은 제가 정확히 언제 어디로 떠났는지도 몰랐을 거고, 자식 생각하는 부모 마음을 말로 다 표현할 수나 있겠습니까.” 그의 남동생은 한국전쟁이 끝나고 얼마지 않아 죽었다. 혼자 남았다는 생각에 최대한 빨리 결혼을 했고 다섯 명의 자녀를 두었다. 그는 두고 온 가족과 부모를 다시 만나고 싶은데 만약 그들이 이세상 사람이 아니라면 기일을 알아 제사라도 지내고 싶다. “식구들이 정말 보고 싶고 만나고 싶은데 시간은 흐르고 나는 이미 늙었지요.”라며 “아직도 혹시나 만날 수 있을까 기다리고 있는데 어떻게 될 지 모르겠어요. 그래도 언젠가는 만날 수 있기를 바랍니다.”하고 말했다.

Jeon Ju-eul, 86, hasn't seen his mother or youngest sister since Christmas Day, 1950, in the middle of the Korean War, when he left his family in the northern part of the country to come south. "The reason I fled to South Korea alone is my youngest sister wanted to stay with my mom and both of them wanted me to go to South Korea because of the rumor there will be a nuclear bomb hitting North Korea soon. They said go to South Korea and have a safe life down there because you're the only son of our family. I heard a rumor that my mother cried out my name for four days at the platform of the train station and passed away there." He wasn't selected for the October 2015 reunions. "I feel bad about this. I really feel bad. So I called the [South Korean] Red Cross, and they explained that I am relatively younger than other applicants."

전주을(86)씨는 한국 전쟁이 한창이던 1950년 성탄절 이후로 그녀의 어머니와 어린 여동생을 보지 못했다. 그는 그 해 북에 가족을 남겨놓고 남쪽으로 내려왔다. “내가 남한으로 혼자 내려온 이유는, 내 어린 여동생이 우리 어머니와 함께 지내고 싶어했고, 또한 두 사람 모두 북한에 조만간 핵공격이 있을 것이란 소문을 들어서였기 때문입니다. 내가 독자 이기 때문에 남한에 가서 안전하게 살라고 하였습니다. 이 후에 어머니가 기차역 승강장에서 내 이름을 나흘 동안 부르시다가 그곳에서 돌아가셨다는 소문을 들었어요.” 그는 2015년 10월의 이산가족 상봉에 뽑히지 못하였다. “속상하죠. 정말 속상해요. 그래서 [남한] 적십자에 전화를 해보았더니, 다른 지원자들에 비해서 내가 상대적으로 어리다고 설명하더군요.”

Oh Joon-hwan, 83, last saw his mother when he was 16 and hiding in the forest during the Korean War. The family had decided to leave their home in the north and go south, but Mr. Oh’s mother decided she wanted to be with her 80-year old mother, who couldn’t withstand the journey south. “Since granny is too old and she’ll be dying soon, just go ahead and take care of yourselves for now,” Mr. Oh’s mother said at the time. Over the years, Mr. Oh served in the South Korean Army, worked in the salt industry, married, became a mailman and had four daughters. Still, he always thinks about his mother. For many years, he hoped to see her at a reunion. “I really wanted to meet her but I couldn’t succeed. If I did, I wanted to live with her forever.”

오준환 (83세)씨는 16세에 어머니를 마지막으로 보고 한국전쟁 기간 중에 숲으로 피신을 했다. 식구들은 북에서 남으로 피난을 가기로 결정했지만 어머니는 먼 길을 떠날 수 없이 병약한 80세 노모와 남아있기로 했다. “할머니는 연로하시고 곧 돌아가실 거니 일단 먼저 피난을 떠나고 몸 조심하렴.”이라고 어머니는 말씀하셨다. 그는 그동안 남한에서 군인으로 복무하고 염전에서 일하다 결혼을 한 후 우체부가 되었고 슬하에 네 명의 딸을 두었다. 그는 지금도 어머니를 생각하며 오랫동안 이산가족 상봉에서 어머니를 만나고 싶어했다. “어머니를 정말 만나고 싶었지만 그러지 못했지요. 만약 만난다면 평생 어머니와 살고 싶은 마음 뿐입니다.”

Kang Neung-hwan, 94, met his son, who lives in North Korea, during the North Korea-South Korea family reunion in Feb. 2014. It was the first time they ever met. “I can’t lie about the blood (relationship). I can see my blood. Yes, right away I noticed him.” Mr. Kang is originally from the north and ended up in the south after the Korean War, not knowing his wife in the north was pregnant and that he would never see her again. “I hope we can unify again so everyone can travel wherever they want to travel and meet all their family members,” he said. “We are the same people from Mt. Baekdu to Mt. Halla. Same country, same people, so we have to stop thinking about ideology.”

강능환(94)씨는 2014년 2월의 이산가족 상봉에서 북한에 살고 있는 아들과 상봉했다. 강씨와 북의 아들은 그때 처음으로 만났다. “그럼, 피는 못속이더라. 육감이 와서 느끼게 되더라” 강씨는 북이 고향이며, 한국 전쟁 이후에 다시는 만날지도 모를 북한 부인의 임신사실을 당시에 모른 채로 남한에 정착하였다. “하루 빨리 통일이 되어서 누구나 할 것 없이 (고향에도 가고) 통일이 되야 되는거. 빨리 통일이 되었으면 좋겠다. 이북 이남을 가르지 말고, 공산 민주주의가 문제가 아니라, 우리는 한민족 한겨레이기 때문에 빨리 통일이 되어야 한다. 저 백두산에서 제주도 한라산까지 우리는 같은 민족이니까 빨리 통일이 되었으면 하는 바람이 있다.”

Kim Soo-ja, 78, came south with her mother and siblings during the Korean War, leaving behind her aunts and grandparents. Her father died in North Korea during the war when the factory he worked at was bombed. “I want to visit my father’s tomb. I really, really, really want to go there.” In Korean culture, it’s very important for families to gather at their ancestors’ tombs and pay respects during major holidays such as Korean Thanksgiving and the Lunar New Year. Not being able to do so is a tragic situation for many yisan kajok (separated family members).

김수자(78)씨는 전쟁 중에 그녀의 고모와 조부모님을 북에 남겨두고, 어머니와 친척들과 함께 남쪽으로 내려왔다. 그녀의 아버지는 일하던 공장이 폭격을 당하는 바람에 한국 전쟁 중에 세상을 떠났다. “ 아버지의 산소를 가보고 싶어. 거기 너무 가고 싶어. 너무 가고 싶어. 우리 아버지 산소. ”한국의 문화에서는 추석과 설날과 같은 명절에 조상들의 무덤에 가족들이 뫃여서는 제사를 지내는 것이 아주 중요하다. 하지만 그럴 수 없는 현실이 이산 가족들에게는 아주 비극적이다.