Korea’s pain of having no route to reunification

Silvia Yang family photo

Silvia (aged five) at her elder sister’s middle-school graduation 1968 or 69
with her father Kyung-soon Kim, mother Ok-sook Kwon, sisters Hee-ok Kim and Baek-hwa Kim, and Hee-jeong Kim (Silvia Yang).


The Korean War caused a deep wound to all Koreans. More than 10 million people were scattered all over the country and, since all means of communication were cut off, the war-dispersed families had no way to verify whereabouts of their missing relatives.

In 1983, a live TV program titled Finding Dispersed Families aired for 138 days in a row with the aim of helping families find their long-lost family members within South Korea. As a result, approximately 10,000 Koreans living in South Korea were reunited with their families. On the other hand, those who left their family members and relatives in North Korea are still longing for their reunion encounter and, if possible, stepping on their home soil.

My father’s hometown named Sonchon is a town of North Pyung-an Province which is located in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). However, Koreans do not consider my father as a North Korean. Where you happened to be when the Armistice was signed was a simple barometer to define whether you are a North Korean or a South Korean.

As my father was south of the division line, the 38th parallel, on July 27, 1953, he became a citizen of the Republic of Korea. Luckily, he was an anti-communist and in terms of ideology he had no political discomfort living in South Korea.

However, at this time of Korean history, there was no complete freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Until 1988, South Koreans were not able to travel overseas freely. The only way of getting out of the country for my father, an ordinary citizen, was by means of immigration.

I remember my father saying that there is never a town, city or a country like your own hometown. Yet he was ready to immigrate to any country that was happy to accept South Koreans – it happened to be Paraguay.

Just like that, in 1975 when I was 12 years old, my life as a diaspora Korean began. Since then, I would not be able to count the number of times I’ve been asked ‘where are you from?’

During my teenage years, I responded with a strong ‘I am from SOUTH Korea’, with a derogatory connotation towards the North. To be honest, the person who asked me about my ethnicity in the 70s and 80s might not even have had the knowledge that Korea had been divided into two nations.

I had been educated under a strongly anti-Communist military dictatorship during my primary school period and I was brainwashed that North Korea was a brutal enemy of South Korea. The fraternal tragedy line, parallel 38th, did not only bring physical separation. Hatred and resentment towards what was once your own nation and your ancestry had been seeded in a young girl’s views.

Paraguay is the farthest country in the world in terms of distance from my country of origin. Nevertheless, hostility toward North Koreans continued during my teenage years in Paraguay.

Funnily enough, Koreans living overseas had to be even more vigilant not to be seen in contact with North Koreans. Contact with North Koreans was prohibited by the South Korean law and anyone found to be involved with a North Korean would be considered a spy.

It was probably out of fear that I responded with such strong emphasis on the adjective ‘SOUTH’ Korea. This continued for a while during my first few years here in Melbourne as well.

But living in this multicultural society, and having learnt to embrace all backgrounds and ethnicities, I realised it was a shameful articulation using this term ‘SOUTH’. North and South, we are absolutely the same ethnic group with the ability to communicate perfectly using the common language, Korean.

The recent events leading to heightened tension in the Korean peninsula enlightened me to the meaning of the term ‘armistice’, a temporary cessation of war, not an end of war.

The helpless reality is that we South Koreans are not in the driver’s seat. There are multiple superpowers with political and economic agendas at stake. In fact, it is no different to the Cold War itself that divided the Korean peninsula.

What South Korea wants ultimately is not a continuation of armistice or prevention of war, but the final settlement for peace in the peninsula: reunification.

Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program will not be stopped with further economic sanctions and applying maximum pressure on this country. It is good to hear that humanitarian assistance to North Korea will proceed, including to children and expectant mothers regardless of the political situation. The South Korean government plans to review allocating the donation of some $US 8million to North Korea through UN agencies.

The more ballistic missiles Kim Jong-Un launches against the world, the more missiles full of love and embracement the world should send back to open a dialogue without provocations and pressure. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

My father died in 2001 at the age of 81 in Seoul. He was not able to visit his hometown ever again since 1953 when the Armistice Agreement was signed. Writing this, I checked for the first time how far Sonchon, my father’s hometown, is from Seoul City Hall using Google Maps. It says ‘No route found’. There is no route found starting from South Korea.

There is also ‘no solution found’ that we Koreans can implement as a nation awkwardly sandwiched between the US, China and Russia. Did you know that the Armistice Agreement was signed by US, North Korea, and China?

The Korean War has wounded many and divided the nation in half. However, the most agonising wound of all that South Korea carries is our helplessness in deciding the fate of our nation; whether it be war, armistice or reunification.

My beloved husband, the father of my two daughters, still lives as one of the 50 million South Koreans. My father’s relatives, who I have never met, probably still live with the 25 million North Koreans. People candidly ask ‘What do you think about the current tension in Korea?’

My simple and honest answer would be that we long for reunification, no matter what struggles it may bring.

Silvia Yang has lived in Australia for the past 10 years while her daughters completed their education. She has a PhD in linguistics, studied theology and currently works at the University of Melbourne teaching Spanish and Korean. Dr Yang is a CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) relationship officer for the Uniting Church.

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