A Hundred-Year Journey of the Family

I had the privilege of working with Professor Kim Duk-chul, the director and producer of A Hundred-Year Journey of the Family, a documentary that appeared in the line-up for documentaries in the sixteenth annual Busan International Film Festival (2011 October 6-14). Professor Kim Duk-chul’s documentary aired on both the 8th of October and the 10th of October. Although I had viewed the documentary while Professor Kim Duk-chul was still editing the film, I was fortunately able to participate in the official first screening of the documentary at the Busan International Film Festival.

The documentary was filmed in Japan over a period of ten years and explored the history and identity-formation of the Korean minority community in Japan. The documentary revealed how the division of the Korean peninsula has not only impacted the lives of people living in North and South Korea, but has also created long-term effects on the Korean communities outside of the boundaries of the peninsula, such as that in Japan. Professor Kim Duk-Chul’s documentary gives the viewer a glimpse of the division of the Korean minority in Japan, the Zainichi Korean community, upon the end of the Korean War and the importance of unification to the communities there as well as to families in North and South Korea.

The documentary opens with the Korean community in Kawasaki, Japan. The foreign residents gathered to demonstrate their pride in their ethnic heritage. Among those present are members of the Korean community dressed in Hanbok and smiling upon those who came to take part in the summer cultural festival. Although the foreign resident communities in Kawasaki and many other cities in Japan have grown to include foreigners from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, during the decades before and after World War II, the Korean minority formed the largest foreign presence in Japan. Even today the Korean minority forms the largest ethnic minority in Japanese society.

During the aftermath of the Korean War, the Korean minority in Japan was divided along North and South political ideologies. Although most people make the assumption that division along those political lines also implies that the Koreans who align themselves with North Korea also hold their roots in North Korea, an overwhelming majority of the Koreans in Japan actually came from provinces in the south of the peninsula. The reason for the ideological split in the Zainichi Korean community reflects the sentiments of those in favor of the left, communism, and socialism and those who, more wary of communism, aligned themselves with the democratic principles of the Japanese government during the US occupation at the end of World War II.

After the end of the Korean War, North Korea had been more economically prosperous than their South Korean counterparts. Therefore, North Korea and Juche principles were also seen as more economically advantageous from the point of view of the Zainichi Korean community that aligned itself with North Korea. At that time the North Korean government also donated money to the “North Korean nationals in Japan” so that they would be able to build schools for their future children, the future North Korean nationals in Japan. The tension of the first few decades upon the close of the Korean War and the antagonism between the colliding political powers caused many families to suffer.

As seen in the documentary, because of their allegiance to North Korea and/or their affiliation with Chongryun or Souren, an organization created as the base for the community of North Korean nationals in Japan, many families had to sever ties from their family members in South Korea. In A Hundred-Year Journey of the Family, the audience has the opportunity to witness how the division affected one such family in particular. A woman’s younger son left the Korea that had been a colony of Japan in search of work in Japan. She remained in Korea with her husband and older son while her younger son had made a family in Japan. However, after the Korean War, her son living in Japan became an educator at a North Korea affiliated school.

On the 17th of November of 1958 the Japanese government organized the Repatriation Act (在日朝鮮人帰国協力会結成) alongside the North Korean regime in order to send those who aligned themselves politically with North Korea to North Korea despite the reality that the majority of the Zainichi Korean population had arrived in Japan from the southern provinces of the peninsula. They went to North Korea without any direct family ties or guarantee of their future security. Among those Zainichi Koreans to be repatriated was the teacher’s son. The teacher had not been able to repatriate himself.

Believing strongly in the reunification of the Korean peninsula, he stayed committed to his position as an educator in the North Korea school system in Japan because he feared that the xenophobic attitude of Japan at the time would lead the Korean minority youth population to feel the need to assimilate completely to Japanese society and forget or disdain their Korean roots and heritage. Therefore, despite the decline of the North Korean regime, the man remained true to his dedication as an educator in the North Korean school system to inspire ethnic pride in the Korean youth even until now.

However, because of this man’s dedication to a North Korean organization, his family still living in South Korea was compelled to sever ties with him. The tension in the aftermath of the Korean War led government officials to interrogate and investigate the family in South Korea once it became known that the man worked for a North Korean school, which by default dubbed him a political activist of North Korea then. In order to protect themselves from the suspicion of the South Korean government, the family of the North Korea school teacher destroyed all evidence of their connection to him – photographs, letters. The school teacher had to accept his family’s decisions because of the difficulty of the era. Separated from his son living in North Korea and his mother and brother living in South Korea, it seemed that the teacher’s family would remain as divided as the peninsula until reunification.

However, the situation became more hopeful when Kim Dae-Jung initiated the Sunshine Policy that culminated with the Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang in June of 2000. Although reunification has yet to come about and complications between the two Koreas still arise, the Inter-Korean Summit allowed for families that had been separated to reunite. Among such families were the North Korea school teacher, his mother, and brother. His father had already passed away at the time of the Inter-Korea Summit and the documentary had not mentioned what had happened to the teacher’s son. Before their official meeting in Korea, the family had been filmed for a short television broadcast in which the teacher’s brother explained why they had to cut off communication with him while the teacher explained why he had been committed to his role as a teacher in a North Korea school. His mother only said that she had remained alive just to be able to meet him again and that she wanted to keep living until she could meet her grandson.

In A Hundred-Year Journey of the Family, the viewer could hear a classic Korean song in the background as the family reunited after fifty-three years of being unable to see each other. The film also shows the reactions of other families reunited after a similar history. The sorrow of having spent so many years apart and the joy of finally being able to meet again are apparent on the faces of all those gathered together with their parents and children. Considering this documentary only gives a glimpse into the lives of Korean families in Japan, who had been separated from loved ones for years, one can imagine that many other Korean families throughout the globe must feel the same sorrow from the division of the peninsula and wait for the time when they can reunite with their family once again.

All photos are still shots of the documentary “A Hundred-Year Journey of the Family” and were taken from the Busan International Film Festival Website.

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