My mother was 2 years old when she, her brother and her parents fled North Korea in 1950 during the Korean War. For me, the story of their escape is exactly that: a story. My grandparents had to separate while traveling south from their northern home city of Kaesong; my grandfather continued on foot, while my grandmother and their two young children left on a train loaded with refugees. They managed to get a spot on the roof of one of its cars. According to the story, people were hanging off the train, risking life and limb. Certainly, people died.
Today, it is a different war and a different train. Railways now serve as lifelines for Ukrainians evacuating pummeled battle zones — the besieged Mariupol, a shelled-out Kharkiv. What remains fixed is the desperation etched on the faces of family members forced to separate amid a war. In images, we see Ukrainians taking their first steps as refugees, as they wrestle with the decision to stay behind, part ways, fight or leave — knowing it could be forever. One father put his hand on the glass of a departing train window; on the other side, his child did the same. Others, like Svetlana Katsi, escaped by foot. “In one day, I have no home,” she said. “And I don’t know where my husband is.”
When my grandmother fled North Korea, her mother stayed behind. After combat ended, the hometown she fled sat on the opposite side of a heavily militarized border — fenced, mined and patrolled — with Korea permanently sliced at the waist at the 38th parallel. There was no contact ever again.
My grandparents eventually rebuilt their lives in Seoul, South Korea, and my mother grew up and then immigrated to the U.S. She doesn’t remember fleeing North Korea, but she is saddened by my grandmother’s unresolved grief. My grandmother, who spent her entire adult life not knowing if her mother was dead or alive in the North, is now 95 years old, isolated in a nursing home in Los Angeles near my mother’s home.
As the dementia takes hold, and my grandmother’s isolation is intensified by her confusion at the masks on people’s faces and the lack of visitors, she frequently asks for her mother. “Is she still alive?” she inquires over and over, to which my mother replies yes or no depending on her mood. Of course, my grandmother’s mother died long ago, perhaps 70 years ago, during the war. While no one knows for sure, 3 million to 4 million civilians are believed to have been killed in the war. The conflict devastated Korea, especially the North, with bombings and chemical weapons.
Whatever trauma my grandmother holds, and however it may have been passed down, isn’t something my family talks about. As explored in the art exhibit “Still Presents Pasts” from several years ago, some Korean Americans such as myself feel ill-equipped to understand this legacy because we haven’t had these conversions. We also don’t learn about the human toll of the Korean War in public schools; if the war is taught, it is often framed around America’s participation in the conflict and its impact on geopolitics. Known as the “Forgotten War,” it remains an overlooked part of our history, yet the survivors have forgotten nothing, leaving them to cope with these traumas on their own.
Now in its third week, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has forced more than 2.8 million people to flee Ukraine. It is a staggering number. Their first and urgent need is safety. The new spending bill Congress passed includes $4 billion in humanitarian aid for Ukraine, helping refugees and providing emergency food assistance and health care. We owe it to families to clearly designate funds to aid in reunification. And not just for Ukraine. According to UNICEF, “In 2020, just three countries — Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan— accounted for about half of all child refugees in the world.” And the United States itself has contributed to family separation along the Mexican border.
That separation is a lifelong trauma. It stays well after the fighting ends. “Family is sacrosanct,” Christopher Boian, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told me. “Family separation can have traumatic effects that are very difficult to repair and can scar people for life.”
To witness such permanence, look no further than the televised reunions showing Korean family members divided by war meeting for the first time in six decades, many in wheelchairs, exchanging gifts and falling into one another’s arms. In 2018, a three-day reunion occurred at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea. One of the attendees, Chung Hak-soon, told a familiar story. She and her mother fled the North through the mountains, but they lost her older brother during the war.
“Whenever my mother passed by a young man of his age, she would run after him calling out my brother’s name, hoping that he’d escaped,” Chung said. But it was never him. “Her heart was broken until she passed away.”
I recently learned that my grandfather, who was also separated from his father during the war, had wished to attend one of these reunions but was never able to. Upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, he decided to pay his respects to his father before he died the only way he could: He flew from Los Angeles to Incheon in South Korea, and then traveled to a train station called Dorasan. It was the closest he could get to the DMZ, the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone separating the Koreas. Unlike the train that carried my family as refugees in 1950, his train couldn’t pass the border. He disembarked, and, for the final time, he faced the North and bowed.