This portrait project by Laura Elizabeth Pohl looks at South Koreans separated from their family members in North Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice agreement in 1953. As these separated families – or yisan kajok (이산가족), as they’re called in Korean – pass away in the next couple of decades, so will all direct family ties and living memories between the two Koreas.
My great uncle, Yu Il-Sang, is my inspiration for this project. In the chaotic months before the Korean War, he moved from the north to the south, leaving his parents and younger sisters behind for what he thought would be a few months. He never saw or heard from them again. All the Korean family holidays I spent with him were filled with tears — not only from him, but from me, too, and from other relatives. As we ate dumpling soups and rice cakes, he told stories about his family, and he lamented being such a bad son. He was the first person I interviewed and photographed for this project, and he died in November 2014, aged 90, without knowing the fate of his parents and sisters. I feel such deep sadness when I think about him being separated from his family all those years.
This portrait project looks at South Koreans and South Korean immigrants to the United States divided from their family members in North Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice agreement in 1953. As these separated families – or yisan kajok (이산가족), as they’re called in Korean – pass away in the next couple of decades, so will all direct family ties and living memories between the two Koreas. Legally, South Koreans can’t have contact – no text messages, phone calls, emails, letters or visits – with North Koreans and vice versa, except at periodic reunions arranged by the South Korean and North Korean Red Cross. Even without legal barriers, it's difficult to contact anyone living in North Korea due to the country's controls on communications flow and technology. Korean-Americans are not eligible for Red Cross reunions. This total and involuntary division between families is a unique situation in the aftermath of a modern war.
I started this project to preserve stories and educate the public about this situation. I hope people will respond with compassion.
Separated family members like my great uncle are a largely forgotten group in South Korea and much of the world. They pop into view during occasional Red Cross family reunions, the dominant visual narrative for yisan kajok. These images are highly emotional: crying, screaming, hugging. But the photos belie a quiet reality: the separated family members will likely never see or hear from their relatives after the short reunion. And in fact, many thousands of South Koreans separated from their siblings, spouses and children in the north will never be chosen for a reunion; there have been only 20 since they began in 2000. Over 60% of South Koreans on the reunion waiting list are 80 years or older. Most will likely never see their families before they pass on.
Both the South Korean and North Korean governments use yisan kajok to their own ends. As James Foley wrote in his book “Korea’s Divided Families: Fifty Years of Separation,” “the South has played on the sympathy the issue evokes both in South Korea and in the international community…the North has used the issue, or more exactly the degree of cooperation it has been prepared to extend in resolving the problem, as a bargaining chip in return for political and economic concessions.” I don’t want to make a political statement with these pictures but I would be foolish not to acknowledge the role of politics in this issue.
Thank you to Jung Jae Eun at the South Korean Red Cross for helping to connect me with yisan kajok, and to Kim Yoola and Lee Hyunseok for their translation and fixing assistance. Thanks also to Catherine Pohl for additional translation help.
– Laura Elizabeth Pohl, Project Director and Photographer