A sad story repeats in the United StatesOn Sept. 11, I visited a quiet residential neighborhood in Columbia, Maryland, about a one-hour drive from Annandale, Virginia, where the Korean population is concentrated. Kim Ju-yeol, 81, was waiting for reporters. Kim’s hometown is in Kaepung County, Hwanghae province, in North Korea near the city of Kaesong. The last time he was in his hometown was in 1949, when he was in his second year of middle school. Thereafter, he went to school in Seoul, living with relatives. The last memory he has of his hometown is of his mother taking him to the train station to go to Seoul. The Korean War broke out the following year, and he never saw his mother again.
“I still remember that I didn’t want to let my mother’s hands go,” he said. “She passed away before she ever saw me again. I have been holding on to the memory for the last 65 years.”
Kim immigrated to the United States in 1978, and in the early ’90s he received an unexpected letter. He had sent letters to his relatives in North Korea through other people several times, and he finally got a response. A relative in the North wrote that his mother had treasured fabrics to make a suit for him for 20 years but had passed away a year earlier.
After settling in the United States, he returned to Korea four times and visited the Military Demarcation Line to look across to the other side. He toured Kaesong and visited the nearby Dorasan Observatory. When he visited Kaesong, he saw Sonjuk Bridge, only a few hundred meters away from where his aunt had lived. But he wasn’t allowed to go further.
Kim keeps a family portrait of his children and grandchildren. “Now that I think of it, the last time I saw my mother was when I was my grandchildren’s age.” Then, the reporter and I realized we had given him false hopes. “When I heard two reporters were visiting me, I thought I might be included on the reunion list.” I felt sorry as I told him frankly that we were visiting without knowing who is on the list. We were so insensitive to the plight of separated families.
After an hour-long conversation, Kim saw us off. He hoped we would visit with good news next time. I was reminded of what Rep. Charles Rangel (above photo) had said when I met him earlier that day: Korean-Americans had made a new home in the United States but cannot forget what they had left behind on the Korean Peninsula.
Living in America cannot erase their sorrows. The pain of separated families is just as intense in the United States as it is in Korea.
BY CHAE BYUNG-GUN
*The author is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.