More than 60 years ago, Myung Ki Min fled south with his parents from North Korea, just before a new communist regime and a four-year war sealed it off from the world.
Eventually, he immigrated to the United States and opened a delicatessen in Alexandria. But in all that time, he knew nothing about the fate of family members left behind.
“My father’s dying wish was for me to find my uncle,” Min, 70, said Tuesday, speaking through an interpreter. Min said he has little hope his relative is alive. “He would be 90 now. It has been 60 years without a trace. . . . But still I want to know. We all want to know.”
Among tens of thousands of Korean American immigrants in the Washington area, there are many like Min whose families were separated in the traumatic split between North and South. But this week, the death of longtime dictator Kim Jong Il, who is to be succeeded by his young, Western-educated son, Kim Jong Eun, has given them a glimmer of hope that the new regime may be more open to their pleas for information.
Some local Koreans said they felt a strong but sheepish urge to celebrate over the death of Kim, whose long reign in Pyongyang was marked by periods of mass starvation and the development of nuclear weapons. “Seventeen Years of Dictatorship Finally Ends!” trumpeted Monday’s front-page headline in a daily Korean-language newspaper produced in Northern Virginia.
Yet the news has provoked equal measures of shock and concern in the area’s thriving Korean community, as it has in other Korean enclaves across the country. Most people said they hoped the sudden change at the top would not lead to upheaval or instability in the totalitarian nation, which they said could bring further suffering to the populace rather than a chance for more freedom.
“Unification is in the minds of all Korean people, no matter where they are, but I think the most important thing to wish for is a peaceful transition, not any sort of drastic change,” said June Yun, vice president of the Korean American Association of Greater Washington.
Yun, who lives in Waldorf, said any hope of a near-term opening up to the West or to greater family unification is “wishful thinking.” She visited North Korea four years ago as part of a delegation from the Washington Area National Unification Advisory Council and said she was deeply affected by what she saw.
“Everything seemed gray and sad. There were no cars on the streets, even in huge cities,” she recounted. “The buildings had missing windows. But what hit me most was that instead of 2007, the newspapers said it was the year 94,” as if history had begun with the birth of the late communist leader Kim Il Sung 94 years ago. He ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994; Kim Jong Il was his son and successor.
For many younger Korean Americans in the Washington area, North Korea is a distant, obscure place about which they know very little. There is no overseas telephone or Internet communication and very little news, except state propaganda. At the Korean American Broadcasting Co. in Annandale, which has been airing Korean news for 30 years, staff members said only 5 to 10 percent of what they report is about happenings in the north.
But many middle-aged immigrants, especially those with roots in the north, still bear the emotional scars of persecution, flight and separation. Some men fought in the Korean War in the early 1950s alongside American troops. Others grew up hearing stories from parents who lost their land, savings and freedom, yet were never accepted as U.S. refugees, like those who fled Cuba or Vietnam. Most Koreans immigrated here after living for years in South Korea.
Sami Lauri, 40, a real estate agent in Fairfax who immigrated from Seoul in her 20s, is active in the regional chapter of the Korean Association for Reunion of Ten Million Divided Families; Min is the chapter president. Lauri said her grandfather had been a Christian missionary and legislator who was captured by North Korean security forces and was never heard from again. Her parents, who had built successful businesses in the north, had to flee and leave everything behind.
“Now that I live in America, somehow I am becoming more of a patriot. My country should be one, and the separation haunts me,” Lauri said. Her family still has several relatives in the north, and Lauri has been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross on a proposed letter-exchange program. She visited North Korea with a group several years ago and said she found her mother’s home town on the coast, near the border. “From the water, you can see it with your bare eyes, but you can’t visit,” she said.
For the oldest immigrants, such as Min, who directly experienced the trauma of family separation, time is running out, and the potential promise of an opening in Pyongyang is tempting to wish for. Min says he doubts anything will change soon, especially since Kim Jong Eun, who is in his 20s and reportedly went to school in Switzerland, has conservative older relatives and powerful military officials to contend with.
Still, Min added, “My very strong wish is that the new leaders will be more open-minded and lenient about reuniting the people. We are too old to wait.”
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