Attention! Tustin Hangar ResourceClick Here

California's 40th District

Mar 11, 2023 | In The News

“I just want to know if he’s dead or alive.”

Anaheim resident Jong-hyun Do has been living in the U.S. for nearly five decades now. But memories of his older brother, Jong-mu Do, who was captured by North Korean soldiers on June 5, 1970, off the coast of Yeonpyeong Island a few miles away from North Korea, are still clear as day.

Jong-mu Do, 24 years old at the time, was serving aboard a South Korean Navy broadcasting ship dispatched to protect a fishing fleet when he and 19 other crewmen were ambushed and seized by a North Korean speedboat, Jong-hyun Do said. According to a Korean newspaper article published at the time, a South Korean fighter jet was sent out to save the crewmen, but by then, the naval vessel had already been removed to the north of the maritime border.

Jong-hyun Do never saw or heard from his brother again.

“I don’t expect to ever see him again. I’m not holding my breath,” Jong-hyun Do, now in his late 70s, said in Korean. “But if only I knew if he is dead or alive.”

The Do family is only one of the thousands torn apart by the heavily fortified border that separates the Korean Peninsula. When the North and South agreed to a ceasefire in 1953 after three years of the Korean War — a bloody civil conflict that left the country utterly devastated and claimed millions of civilian lives — the border between the two sides was sealed shut.

Today, only a thin strip of land, dubbed “The Bridge of No Return,” separates the residents of the only divided country in the world.

A majority of divided families were separated during the war when they fled communist North Korea prior to the closing of the border, but some, like Jong-hyun Do’s brother, were taken as hostages, even after the ceasefire.

While there was an estimated 100,000 Korean Americans with relatives in North Korea, who, like Jong-hyun Do, came to the U.S. after the war, that figure is now closer to just several thousand people who are still alive, experts say, noting the number will dwindle as people get older.

Chahee Lee Stanfield, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group National Coalition on the Divided Families: Divided Families USA, estimates about 85% of survivors are in their 80s and 90s. “Time is running out,” Stanfield said.

The South and North Korean governments have facilitated 21 in-person and virtual reunions since they began implementing family reunions in 1985, according to Rep. Young Kim’s office.

But because the application is eligible only for Korean citizens, Korean Americans with loved ones in the North have largely fallen through the cracks.

A bipartisan resolution introduced earlier this year by Kim, R-Anaheim Hills, and Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Los Angeles, aims to get this group of Americans closer to some form of a reunion by calling on the U.S. and North Korea to recognize the situation “as a humanitarian policy of immediate concern.”

Kim’s resolution is separate from the Divided Families Reunification Act — which called on federal officials to work with South Korea and the Korean American community to organize reunions — but she hopes to build momentum for the cause before it’s too late for some separated families.

“The resolution is to show continued support for making these reunifications a reality, especially now that the bill became law,” Kim, who chairs the Indo-Pacific Subcommittee, said.

These movements from the U.S. government gives hope to Jong-hyun Do, who called Kim’s efforts a “silver lining.”

“There hasn’t been any tangible action, really,” Jong-hyun Do said. “I’ve been monitoring the situation for a very long time.”

Fifteen other members of Congress are on board with the resolution, including Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Seal Beach, and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks. Kim and Steel, along with Democratic Rep. Marilyn Strickland of Washington, made history in 2020 as the first Korean American women elected to Congress.

‘A matter of utmost urgency’

Advocates for divided Korean American families say this “fundamentally humanitarian issue” is oftentimes lost in discussions about nuclear weapons testing, security and sanctions.

“In many ways, these families are the only living human link between the U.S. and North Korea,” said Paul Kyumin Lee, president of DFUSA.

Los Angeles and Orange counties are home to the first- and second-largest Korean populations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And according to DFUSA’s private registry of some 100 elderly Korean American families, about 30 people in both counties have relatives in North Korea, Lee said.

Small communities of divided family members have popped up in the greater L.A. area, and in 2021, the National Coalition on the Divided Families named Chang-jun Choi of L.A. as chairman of its Southern California chapter.

Choi, a longtime video journalist and divided family member himself, said he has video records of 20 survivors who reside in L.A. and Orange County, some of which are posted on KBCTV, a Korean-language broadcast company he founded in 1983. His list isn’t extensive, he said, because there are hardly any first-generation divided family members who are still alive. Plus, he said, it’s extremely difficult to get them to come forward.

“They don’t see any reason to talk because they think reunions are impossible,” Choi said. “One reason is that there is currently no way we could travel to North Korea due to the U.S. travel ban.”

The 90-something-year-old activist is still on the search for survivors. He carries a small gimbal video camera with him at all times, just in case he meets someone whose hometown is in North Korea.

With the issue back in the spotlight, Choi said he hopes the U.S. government finds a way to let family members travel to North Korea.

“I believe there will be an astronomical amount of people who apply,” Choi said. “But even a chance to video chat with them would be huge. We would really appreciate that.”

“This is a matter of utmost urgency.”

Lee hopes Kim’s resolution paves the way for closure for divided Korean American families, whether it be through letter exchanges, phone calls or video chats.

“I think for various reasons, in-person reunions might be challenging for the time being,” Lee said, noting that the last of these reunions took place in 2018. “One thing to consider is alternative means of closure for these divided families.”

Divided Families USA is planning to launch a video archive project this summer of messages from Korean American people that he hopes the State Department or Red Cross could deliver to family members in North Korea, he said.

In an ideal world, a drive from Seoul to Pyongyang would take around two hours and cover approximately 120 miles, just like a commute from L.A. to San Diego. And while Jong-hyun Do doesn’t expect to be making that drive anytime soon, he said he hasn’t given up all hope, not yet.

“I’ve been waiting for so long. And this is my one ray of hope,” he said. “Hopefully Kim’s resolution could bring about some meaningful action.”

Los Angeles Daily News

Signup to receive our Email Newsletters

The Latest News