Film Captures Families’ Pain

Two young Korean-Americans make a documentary about families forcibly separated after the Korean War.

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Jason-Ahn-305.jpg WASHINGTON—RFA Korean service reporter Sookyung Lee interviews Jason Ahn, July 16, 2009
RFA/Kyu Lee

SEOUL—More than 50 years have passed since the Korean War ended, but more than 1 million families still remained separated between the capitalist South and the isolated, Stalinist North.

Images of reunited, long-lost sisters, brothers, and cousins parted by the 1950-53 war, often now well into their seventies, are commonplace across television screens and newspapers in the region.

South Korean officials have frequently raised the issue in negotiations with their Northern counterparts.

Now, two second-generation Korean-Americans are making a documentary about separated families on the Korean peninsula, prompted by the dying wishes of beloved grandparents.

“I thought that we needed to embark on this documentary project because we need to show the tragedy of these people,” director Jason Ahn, 25, said.

“We need to raise awareness, and we need to also advocate for separated families,” said Ahn, a second-year student at the Harvard Medical School.

Ahn said his grandmother, battling stomach cancer, had only one wish: to see her younger sister, left behind in the North, one more time before she died.

“She received one letter, and she wrote to her younger sister that the last thing she wished to do before she died was to see her,” Ahn recalled.

“Unfortunately she passed away. And there was one last letter sent to her younger sister, with pictures of my grandmother’s funeral. It is a tragic story that I thought should be told and shouldn’t be hidden,” he added.

A singular moment

South Koreans cried while watching images of a 70-year-old son hugging his 90-year-old mother for the first time since the early 1950s, when, at age 10, he left the house saying he would be back in just a little while.

But Ahn and his producer Eugene Chung, 25, said that the story of senior Korean-Americans separated from their relatives in North Korea for almost six decades is barely known abroad, which they attribute to a strong language barrier and the busy lifestyle of Korean immigrants.

“I do think that this is a singular moment in time where lots of social factors come together to create a situation where one second you are with your mother and the next second you are not,” Chung said.

Chung, studying for an MBA at Harvard, and Ahn are currently working flat out in their spare time to produce the film “Separate Lives,” along with 20 young second-generation Korean-American volunteers.

“Some of the separated families we interviewed said they thought they would see their family in three days, that they would see them again very soon,” Chung said.

“My maternal grandparents were from North Korea. My grandmother passed away 12 years ago, but her wish to be reunited with her family still lives in my heart, and I would like to fulfill that wish on behalf of my late grandparents,” he said.

Raising funds

Ahn and Chung have also had voluntary, unpaid assistance from U.S.-based experts on the Korean conflict who wish to publicize the issue of family separations.

But they said they were struggling to raise the U.S.$20,000 budget the documentary would need.

Ahn said he hoped the project would appeal to older Korean Americans as an investment in the history of their community.

“It is something that we can do for this aging generation and for our future generations,” he said.

“Because I want to be able to share 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, with my children and their grandchildren the sacrifices and struggles that our parents and grandparents have gone through in order to give us this position in society.”

“It is one moment in history that will be forever lost and forgotten if we don’t act now,” Ahn added.

South Korean officials say there are around 1.2 million South Koreans with close relatives of the same generation still in North Korea. If younger generations are counted, the figure is closer to 8 million.

Original reporting in Korean by Sookyung Lee. Korean service director: Insop Han. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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