Families look for leadership
The Korean War, also known as the “forgotten war” by many Americans, lives on in the daily lives of the Korean-American community. The division of the country some 70 years ago along ideological lines by two superpowers is one of the last surviving remnants of the Cold War, which seemingly ended with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, but continues for all separated Korean families. Torn apart by the abrupt arbitrariness of war, countless families separated in the fall and winter of 1950 believing they would be reunited within two or three weeks. That two or three weeks has become 70 years, with no end in sight.
Enter Mrs. Chahee Lee Stanfield, a small-town librarian from the Chicago suburbs and catalyst for the Divided Families Movement in the United States. Through her research and publication of material about Korea, she discovered people in her immediate community who were desperate for any news or information about North Korea.
“Most of these people were from North Korea, and I realized there are so many people around me who are suffering because they didn’t know what happened to their family members,” she says. “I knew the situation was urgent. But I really didn’t know how to start. Someone had to start it, but the issue was just too big for me to take on by myself.”
For this community, the Korean War is not forgotten, rather it is a reality they face every day. A reality in which they don’t even know if their brothers, mothers, fathers or sons are still alive.
“Even at the height of the Vietnam war, North and South Vietnam exchanged postcards with family information on them,” says Dr. Stephen Linton, founder of the Eugene Bell Foundation. “It was a very abbreviated way of communicating, but at least people were able to keep up with who died, who was married, who was born. But the border between North and South Korea never allowed for that kind of exchange of information, so it is almost like dropping a curtain in Washington across the Potomac river, and whoever happened to be on the west side would never hear what happened to the people on the east side, and vice versa.”
It is well known that German families of East and West were allowed to correspond via letters, phone calls and even face-to-face encounters decades before the wall came down in the fall of 1989. Some experts believe the momentum created by cross-border contacts played a key role in creating a climate of reunification for the two Germanys.
“We know there are over a hundred American citizens who have relatives in North Korea. We have established the official channel through the commission. And we have the registry to make it easy for the first test cases,” Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk says in the “Divided Families” documentary. “The difficulty of all these efforts has been to break loose from the up-and-down cycle of U.S.-DPRK relations.”
However, with domestic policy in the United States as tense as ever and foreign policy focused elsewhere, the divided families are held hostage by a U.S. policy of disengagement and isolation toward the DPRK. This was not always the state of U.S.-DPRK relations, Kirk notes.
“Things actually got pretty good between the DPRK and the United States. In 1997, 1998 and 1999, discussions looked like they had real promise. I’d like to get back there,” he says. “We have 10-15 years left before everyone who has direct relatives will have passed on. Seventy years is already too long; this should have been done long ago.”
The current state of U.S.-DPRK relations remains unchanged in a cycle of two steps forward, three steps back. Economic sanctions, isolation and demonization of North Korea will always be in the toolbox for U.S. diplomacy. But after banging our heads against the wall for seven decades, we would hope to learn from the lessons of the past and seek implementation of a dynamic, multidimensional policy with engagement as the centerpiece. Benjamin Franklin, possibly the greatest diplomat the United States ever produced, once stated, “If you do tomorrow what you did today, you will get tomorrow what you got today.”
The United States is not, nor should it be, obligated to make concessions to the DPRK in the short or long term. However, a new policy of engagement toward the DPRK that focuses first and foremost on reuniting the divided families, is the kind of leadership the world is looking for from the United States as we transition to a peaceful 21st century of coexistence.
The author is the Seoul bureau chief of Arirang Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating opportunities for engagement on the Korean Peninsula through “People to People” diplomacy.
by Michael Lammbrau