|The sun sets on the inter-Korean ceasefire line, June 25, 2000, 50 years after the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War. The war ended with an Armistice Agreement but the two Koreas remain separated after nearly seven decades, with July 27, 2019, marking the 66th anniversary of the armistice. Korea Times file|
Joy Lee tells her story as Korean-American missing family in North Korea
By Jung Da-min
Joy Lee Powell Gebhard, an 84 year-old Korean American, still vividly remembers the moment she said goodbye to her mother.
It was Dec. 3, 1950, after the Chinese People's Army had intervened in the Korean War pushing the South Korean Armed Forces and the United Nations forces backwards.
Lee was a 15 year-old girl just ahead of entering a high school in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Born in a house opposite the Taedong River in 1935, her given name was Bok-shin.
|Joy Lee Powell Gebhard / Courtesy of Joy Lee Powell Gebhard|
As Lee was leaving her mother, along with other refugees heading to Seoul, she was wearing her school uniform with additional layers of clothing her mother had put on her, while also carrying rice and snacks her mother had packed.
"My mother, standing in a room with an earthen floor, grasped both my hands and told me to write to her often, and that I must survive. As I was walking away from the house, I had an instinctive feeling that I might not be able to see her again afterwards. I kept looking back and she was still standing there. That was the last moment."
Lee's father had died earlier that year. Her four other sisters ― 22, 11, eight and six years old, respectively, at the time ― had left the house to take refuge as the winter was starting, just before Lee headed to Seoul. Their mother chose to stay in the house to keep the family property.
After leaving Pyongyang to come to Seoul, Lee had no family nor acquaintances in the South, and often went hungry.
"I thought of going back to the North every day," Lee said recalling the days in Seoul after she left Pyongyang. "I thought that I might be able to go back if I climbed up the mountain or if I just keep moving toward the North."
Seeing a recruitment advertisement for a nursing school in Busan, she managed to get to the southern port city.
"When I was in Pyongyang, I had been dreaming of becoming a doctor who could cure cancer. I thought becoming a nurse was another way to enter the medical field," Lee said.
After graduating from nursing school, she entered Pusan National University to major in politics.
As a self-supporting student and an utter stranger with no family or acquaintances in Busan, Lee took on many jobs to earn money. She was a translator for foreign missionaries, a tutor for choir members' children at a U.N. church established by the United States and an announcer for a broadcaster HLKY.
On Aug. 3, 1956, she left for the United States to study further upon an invitation from a Methodist Church coalition in Texas. It was in July 1970 when she came to visit South Korean again after she underwent major cancer surgery in the U.S.
"I wanted to touch the soil of my motherland. But as I could not visit my North Korean hometown, I wanted to visit my second hometown, which was Mount. Gudeok in Busan. I used to climbed the mountain and studied there," Lee said.
Lee also went to the inter-Korean demarcation line along the 38th parallel that divides Koreas at the Demilitarized Zone. She brought a fistful of soil from there to the U.S., putting it in a plastic bag.
Since then, Lee had not given up trying to find her family in North Korea and kept writing letters to her family and calling and writing to embassies of the two Koreas and the United States to find their whereabouts.
Her letters and calls often received no response. The ones she did receive were devoid of empathy and stated that they were not capable of helping her, but she did not stop writing.
"'We are the most miserable people in the world,' that was what I often wrote in the letters I sent, out of resentment that both the South and North Korean government are cruel in that they were not willing to help those desperate to find their separated families," Lee said.
|In this Dec. 4, 1950, file photo by former Associated Press photographer Max Desfor, residents from Pyongyang, North Korea, and refugees from other areas crawl perilously over shattered girders of the city's bridge, as they flee south across the Taedong River to escape the advance of Chinese Communist troops. AP-Yonhap|
In 1988, by the time when she gave up on hearing back, she finally received a letter from North Korea with a Pyongyang stamp. It was 38 years after she left her home there.
"What I first saw was the part where it read my mother had died. I was too shocked to keep reading. I left my house and hovered around my neighborhood in a raincoat…and it wasn't even raining. …… When I came back home and continued to read through the rest part of the letter, my dog kept crying as if it felt my grief and shock," Lee said.
"The letter said that all of my sisters were alive, still living at the address in Pyongyang I remembered. I was told to come visit my homeland anytime, encouraging me to come. I immediately started to get ready to leave."
After a dramatic reunion with her sisters in Pyongyang that year, Lee has since visited the North 15 times before the U.S. government banned its citizens from traveling to North Korea in August 2017.
US travel ban should be lifted for separated families
The travel ban was imposed after Otto Warmbier, a U.S. student who had visited the North in 2016 and died in the following year after released by the North Korean government. Warmbier had been detained for allegations of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.
Lee said she would have wanted to break the travel ban if she were younger and had more energy. She will not take the risk now as she is getting old and does not want to stress herself out when her time and energy to go see her family in the North again are limited.
But it is not that she thinks the travel ban is right.
"[The travel ban] is such an unprecedented and dreadful violation of human rights in the history of international community," Lee said, adding that innocent separated families have been sacrificed.
Lee said it is really a time pressing issue as she thinks the concept of separated families itself will fade out in the near future, after the surviving first-generation separated families die out.
"I think the surviving first-generation separated families will die within about 10 years from now," Lee said.
While those in the U.S. who have separated relatives in North Korea are getting old, they have been recognized neither by the South Korean government nor the U.S. government. Almost no governmental-level efforts have been made to help them meet their families.
Some discussions have arisen recently on organizing a family reunion event for Korean-Americans who have separated relatives in the North among the U.S. lawmakers, but they put the decision in hands of Stephen Biegun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea.
This showed the family reunion issue is being linked with the political issue of denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. and North Korea, when the separated families cry out that the issue should be dealt with in a humanitarian way, separate from political issues.
|Tourists, far right, take photos before the Taedong River in Pyongyang in this July 23, 2017, file photo. AFP-Yonhap|
The U.S. government's travel ban has also impacted those who had been visiting North Korea for humanitarian activities.
Joon Bai, another Korean American born in North Korea before the Korean War, is one of those who had often visited the North for humanitarian work, such as building schools and providing relief goods. Bai was born in 1937 in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province. He came to the South when the war broke out and later came to the U.S.
Bai has been helping North Koreans by providing some humanitarian aid, as he considers them as his neighbors in his hometown.
After the travel ban took effect, he could not visit the North any more as his first application for the exemption for humanitarian work had been rejected. He had since applied again and been waiting for the result.
"[Lifting the travel ban for those doing humanitarian work] is really not a question of U.S. government doing things for any purpose. …. It's a human need," Bai said.
Kee B. Park, a Korean American who as a surgeon has visited the North 20 times, also says the travel ban should be lifted as it has lost the justification of protecting U.S. citizens from arbitrary detention at changing relations between the U.S. and North Korea since then.
"It appears the travel ban is now being used by the U.S. as a pressure tactic which in my opinion has minimal value in coercing the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) yet has a devastating effect on the U.S.-based humanitarian workers and the U.S. citizens who wish to visit families inside the DPRK," Park said.
"The travel ban should be lifted immediately. If not, at the very least, allow the U.S. citizens with families inside DPRK an exemption process to visit them. This is an urgent humanitarian issue that is being totally neglected but must be resolved quickly as many divided family members are dying."