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Global Voices: Pleas for Korean peace 60 years after fighting ended

May 02, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • The only civilian traffic across the heavily fortified divide between North Korea and South Korea in recent weeks has been South Korean workers departing the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint production facility shuttered by Pyongyang amid the seething tension stirred by U.S.-South Korean war games and North Korean threats to launch nuclear missiles.
The only civilian traffic across the heavily fortified divide between… (Jeon Heon-Kyun / European…)

A conference to promote peace between communist and capitalist adversaries might sound like an antiquated notion in the post-Cold War era.

But in this 60th anniversary year of the signing of the Korean War armistice, which suspended the fighting but never led to a peace treaty, tension has escalated to a frightening crescendo. In a bid to focus the world's attention on this unresolved crisis, Koreans from both sides of the U.S.-designated demilitarized zone will bring their stories of personal heartache to a three-day forum organized by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies.

Setting the stage for discussions on how to pursue a formal end to the conflict will be two documentary films, "Memory of Forgotten War" and "The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger," tracing the tragic fates of war survivors and families separated by the ideological cleaving of their homeland.

In  “Memory of Forgotten War,” Bay Area filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem and her Boston College professor brother-in-law, Ramsay Liem, weave an emotionally powerful tapestry of the post-war journeys of four Korean immigrants, their family photos, archival wartime footage and the Korean peninsula’s 20th century history as pawn on the great powers’ chessboard.

The enduring hardships of the frozen conflict are told through the aging survivors' experiences: Hee Bok Kim, separated from her Pyongyang family when she married and moved to Seoul just before the war; Suntae Chun, shunned among his South Korean colleagues for his family ties to the North; Kee Park, a daughter of the landed gentry dispossessed when the communists rolled over her home in Bukchang; Minyong Lee, who hid his northern connections from Seoul neighbors after a brother was beaten to death for having sided with the Soviet-backed North Korean government in the five years between World War II’s end and the outbreak of a proxy superpower war in Korea.

The Liems discussed their film and their hopes for the May 8-10 UCLA conference in an interview with The Times.

Q:  What did you hope to accomplish with the film?

Ramsay Liem:  One purpose was to remind all Americans that the Korean War never  ended.  The fighting ended with a cease-fire in 1953,  but it perpetually haunts us in our relations with North Korea.  The film is very much an effort to convey the human legacies of the division that have continued on, long past the end of the hot war.

Q:  Why is there still such strong social reproach among South Koreans over their countrymen’s visits to relatives in North Korea?

Ramsay Liem:  Divided families get caught between competing political agendas.  Until the war is finally settled with a peace treaty, many tragic legacies are not going to be resolved, including those of the divided families. We still don’t have an official policy or legislation in the United States to make it possible for Koreans in this country to meet their relatives in North Korea, although several thousand Korean Americans have been able to get there in their own particular ways.

Deann Borshay Liem:  Minyong Lee expresses this most poignantly in the film, about how the politics are so black and white. If you have family members who voluntarily went to North Korea, the level of anti-communist sentiment is so strong that it’s really hard for people to accept that. For him, it weighed on him even after he emigrated to the United States.

Q:  Why, with the Cold War over, does the North-South divide on the Korean peninsula persist? What needs to change on each side of the demilitarized zone to reunite Koreans?

Ramsay Liem:  One of the critical factors is the failure of signatories to the armistice -- including the United States and the People’s Republic of China -- to move beyond the truce. Until that Cold War division is ended, and the only way to end it is to end the war, it will be impossible to create an environment where Koreans can go back and forth.

Deann Borshay Liem:  Hee Bok Kim says we need to know more about North Korea before we judge it. Her experience and others who have reunited should guide us.

Q:  Even among the few who have managed to make the journey to see family in the North, there have been many cases where it was too late, that most or all of their immediate family had died. Is there a risk that as the years go by and survivors die that there will be less a sense of urgency to heal the divide?

Ramsay Liem:  There is always a danger that the further you get away from the reality of the war,  and it’s quite far already after 60 years, that it is quite difficult to make people aware of these continuing conditions.

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