[BOOK REVIEW]Rare view of Korea’s humanitarian tragedy

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[BOOK REVIEW]Rare view of Korea’s humanitarian tragedy

Given the reservoirs of ink devoted to the nuclear crisis, speculation about North Korea’s political motives and even the bizarre private life of Kim Jong-il, it is odd that more attention is not paid to the greatest tragedy of Korea’s division: separated families.
The author of “Korea’s Divided Families: Fifty Years of Separation,” one of only two English-language works on the subject, should be commended. British scholar James Foley, who teaches Korean Studies at the U.K.’s University of Sheffield, expanded this book from his doctoral thesis.
His work offers the detailed research one would expect, but Mr. Foley, who is married to a Korean and who interviewed divided family members in 2001, never loses sight of the subject’s human face.
One interviewee asks poignantly: “Why did this tragedy have to happen to our people and our country?” Mr. Foley attempts to answer this question in his initial chapter on recent Korean history ― as good a primer on the topic as I have encountered. Unlike certain local historians, who have a tendency to daub their subject with a nationalistic public relations gloss, Mr. Foley is brutally objective.
Chapter 2 gets to the core, dealing with the demographics of divided families. Mr. Foley is scathing of the figure of 7 million that the (South) Korean Red Cross and Seoul’s Office for the Administration of the Five Northern Provinces present, calling it a “gross exaggeration.” The author suggests 500,000 to 750,000, in both North and South, as more reliable figures, and argues that the first step to assisting divided families “must be an effective quantification of the problem itself.”
A further chapter deals with division and reunification, then the rest of the book is devoted to division, separation and accounts of reunions. This is where the work shines. Mr. Foley notes that many of the reunions, due to “animosity toward the ‘other side’s’ system and feelings of guilt and recrimination,” were highly stressful. But the accounts are fascinating: while some managed to communicate familial love, for others, the ideological gulf was too deep to cross.
My only real criticism of the book is the price. An academic work on an obscure subject, it is selling on Amazon for a staggering $114 ― which will ensure that only the most dedicated Koreanist is likely to acquire it. That is a pity. This is a humanitarian tragedy the world should be better acquainted with.

Korea’s Divided Families:
Fifty Years of Separation

By James A. Foley
Routledge Curzon, 212 pages
$114 on Amazon.com

by Andrew Salmon
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