“Healing that division is about much more than politics or economics. These human tragedies are rooted in our personal histories that continue to this day. They are so deeply felt that they cannot be buried and forgotten beneath a thin veneer of material prosperity and the mindless cacophony of modern life.” ~Dr. Hyun Jin Moon, Korean Dream: A Vision of a Unified Korea
During mid-October two waves of Koreans crossed the border between North and South Korea for their first and probably last visit with family members they have not seen since the 38th parallel was drawn at the armistice that put the Korean War at a standstill.
This piece is an imagined dialogue based off of accounts from the most recent reunions.
She wrung her papery hands. Sixty-five years ago they were considered graceful, but years of working odd jobs to make ends meet left only bones and skin.
Would he remember her? Was sixty-five years too long to wait? She braced herself for the worse. For her, the thought of remarriage made her cringe. He was her one and only. To this day she lived in the same house they had begun married life surrounded by the echoes and shadows of their memory.
He pulled his hat down over his eyes, hoping it would shade the nervousness that filled them. How was she? Was she happy? And what had come of the child whom he had never seen?
His mind floated back sixty years. Time had blurred the lines of her face, but the thought of her laugh, her hands, her smell still made his heart flutter.
The strains of “Anyonghaseyo” over the loudspeaker announced the arrival of the Northern Koreans.
She slowly got up and began moving through the crowd of flashing cameras, Red Cross volunteers and other participants, peering at the name tags to see if each passing elderly man was him.
He wandered in, wondering how he would ever find her in the sea of people.
The crowd parted.
He first spotted her eyes; the sparkle was still there. Her hair was pulled back the same way he remembered it, but it was now snow white.
He pushed back his hat to get a better look, and cracked a smile.
She looked up. Her eyes widened in disbelief. She could still recognize his smile, although mostly toothless. She raised her hand to her mouth to hide the mixture of surprise and sudden shyness. He took her in his arms.
For one moment they stood in a timeless space that brought together the present and sixty years ago, they were once again the expecting young couple before the fateful day the war had drawn an artificial division between the Korean people.
“Thank you for being alive,” she murmured.
“I never thought the war would do this to us,” he whispered.
Their new family was one of the hundreds of thousands that were divided during the Korean War.
She was pregnant when they were separated. Their child, a boy, was now a man. She had assumed that her husband was dead. Every year she would hold a memorial service for him.
Life was hard. She raised their son on what she could earn on the farm and needlepoint. There were days where she almost gave up. But when she saw her son’s face, she realized that even though ideology had raised a wall, it could not separate blood. She carried a part of her husband with her that she treasured, cared for and cultivated.
She raised their son strictly, knowing that he would have to be strong enough to ignore the whispers in the back and fill the emptiness of an absent father.
For the first time in their lives, son and father faced each other. The son made a full bow and through tears called out, “Father,” fulfilling a life-long wish.
His father’s heart swelled with pride and sorrow at the same time. This was his son, but he had missed watching him grow and would most likely miss the rest of it. No one has ever qualified for a second reunion.
Father and son gazed at each other – their expressive brows, half-moon eyes, square face, and prominent nose were mirrors of each other.
For sixty five years the 38th parallel had separated them, but blood had crossed over the border and connected father and son.
48 hours is not enough time to make up for 65 lost years – not counting the rest of the years that would follow. How do you begin to catch up, and how do you say farewell again?
“Live long,” she fumbled to straighten his necktie. “Take care of your health,” she took his calloused hands in hers, willing all her life force over to him so as to sustain his happiness.
He stood between his son and wife. “Raise our son well,” he said, still searching for final words. A wish welled up in his heart and escaped his lips, “Let’s meet in heaven,” he blurted to her through hot tears that welled up in his eyes, clouding his vision.
Reluctantly he let go and boarded the bus, but a desperate longing drove him to the window. He saw her face and reached out his hands, just one last touch, one final look…She took his hand in both of hers, and they held their gaze until the bus pulled out of the parking lot taking him again out of sight.
In his book, Korean Dream, Dr. Moon cites an estimate of 500,000 and 750,000 families have been estranged by the over 70 year ideological divide. Each number is a story of heartbreak and tears. The real tragedy, however, is the story of the Korean people who have been derailed from fulfilling their shared destiny of contributing to the betterment of humanity.
Now is the time for Koreans to take their fate back into their own hands to fulfill their destiny as a people who can manifest the ideals of “Hongik Ingan” to the world.