On the evening news at my grandfather’s house one day, I watched a
story about South Korean families reuniting with their long-lost relatives from
North Korea. People were crying in joy, some fainting. I found it strange that my
grandfather showed no particular reaction to this, so I asked, “Grandpa, have you
ever signed up for these meetings?” I was surprised again by his lack of emotion
when he answered no because I knew that he had family in the North, but I know
now that he was not cold-hearted; he just didn’t want to put them in harm’s way.
My grandfather moved to the south at the age of thirteen from a village
in what is present-day North Korea. He was the eldest son of a wealthy family,
but after the communist regime took over, nothing could be guaranteed. In
anticipation of the war, he came with his father to see whether there were
economic opportunities near Seoul. But when they tried to return to get the rest
of the family, the war had broken out. They were separated just like that. This
family history of separation is only a piece of Korean history.
But ironically, despite the imperishable blood ties between the two
states, there is a growing apathy toward reunification in South Korea. Most
people dismiss it as economically impractical and are unwilling to sacrifice any
of their comforts by reuniting with a country whose economic size is only one-
twentieth of ours. In addition, there are numerous political and social divisions
that have ossified over the past half-century. Reunification, whether it happens
through negotiations or brought about suddenly by world events, will be a difficult
and complex process that will drastically alter life on the Korean peninsula.
Nevertheless, there is an important human dimension to the story of the two
Koreas, which often gets lost in the calculus of economic costs and burdens of
Given this history, I sympathize with my grandfather’s seemingly
indifferent and cold reaction to the scenes on television. Sometimes, he even
expresses strong criticisms of the South Korean government to engage the
North. But deep inside, I know he misses his mother, brother, and sister very
much. Like other South Koreans, my grandfather may consider reunification a
luxury that we cannot afford amidst nuclear weapons and ideological conflict, but
that does not erase the feelings of longing or hope that he has suppressed for
decades. It was difficult to speak to him about what I was seeing on television
that day, but it was the beginning of a much longer conversation that we have
shared over the years, a discussion of our family chronicle and national history.
My grandfather is still reticent sometimes when I broach the topic,
and I see in his continuing hesitation a broader reluctance in South Korean society to actively engage in national dialogue about reunification. No doubt the economics of reunification is important, and North Korea must change its ways. We must be more conscious of our future and articulate a clear strategy to integrate the peninsula while minimizing adverse consequences. This requires leadership, a tolerance for sacrifice, and intellectual creativity.
With each passing year, we are losing a generation of Koreans directly
separated from their families. Many have lost hope. I know my grandfather
wishes to see his hometown once more and reunite with his family. It is a
sentiment that he rarely shows, but I know and empathize with his yearning.
I am embarrassed to admit that, even I, a South Korean national, and
coming from a university where everyone has something to say about politics
and foreign affairs, have not considered North Korean issues deeply and so
personally until this summer. The rest of the world regards North Korea as a
burden that they are reluctant to take on. Even among South Koreans, education
about unification is ingrained into our school system since primary school, with
annual poster and slogan competitions to promote unification, but the imperative
for unification is unclear for most young students who now have few apparent
ties with the North.
Through the Ministry of Unification Overseas Correspondent Program,
travelling along the North Korean border in China, working with North Korean
defectors, and meeting a (sadly) rare group of young students who are
passionate about North Korean affairs, I better understand the meaning
of ‘Hangyeore’—which roughly translates to one people—, and am more hopeful
for unification as a real future for the Korean peninsula. As I start my third year at
Georgetown, I am eager to share my experiences from this summer and become
an active agent in raising awareness about unification among my immediate
community as well as gaining global support regarding this matter.