A Story of Han


I felt tired today.
I felt tired today because I had a 20-minute phone conversation this afternoon with an elderly Korean woman who, as far as I could hear, was absolutely desperate.  And as far as I could tell, has been in this state of absolute albeit quiet desperation for the past 50 years.
Why?  Because Mrs. Kim is part of a community of individuals who come from divided families.  Families separated after the Korean War.  The man-made border that changed their lives forever.  Physically, relationally, no contact, and no news.  Utterly divided.  An iron wall.
She wasn’t exactly narrating.  Her voice almost whined as she spoke but in a way that inspired empathy – a splintery tone in slightly broken English, strained at a higher, flat-ish pitch, inflections from time to time grazing the extremes of despondent persuasion and quickened hope.  And the substance of her outpour swept me down a torrent of familiar-but-unknown histories and emotions, leaving my mind and its thoughts scrambling in white-numbness.  Bereft of words.  Bereft of answers.
The Korean War had just ended.  There’s a 13-year-old boy, Jun.  He was 13 when he was sent away from North Korea to safety. When the time was right, his mother decided to pack up and leave with the rest of the family to join him.  Somehow, she and her 3-year-old and 7-year-old managed to travel across the country and arrive without incident on the Western coast of North Korea, where a boat was to take them away.  It was a windy day and the sea was rough.  So she told her 2 little ones to wait on the beach, not to move an inch, that she would drop off their luggage on the boat first, then hurry back to help them on.  She climbed on board.  But (of course, there’s a “but”), as she was turning back, the sound of gunfire filled her ears.  North Korean soldiers.  Her heart plunged.  (It was and still remains illegal to leave North Korea without special government permission.)
Can you imagine the scene?  The others on the boat restraining her, a mother, telling her that they must leave immediately in order to have a prayer at escaping.  That it’s no use.  That she must stay on the boat.  As she, a mother, maniacally tries to claw past them, screeching bloody murder through her clenched teeth.  As she tries to hurl herself recklessly, desperately overboard to her dear children waiting for her on the beach.  Waiting for their mother.  Waiting.
Fast-forward 50 years.  She’s dying in Los Angeles.  She, on her deathbed, makes her eldest (Jun) promise her something.  Promise that he will find his siblings who were long-lost in North Korea whose fate is unknown to this day.  Promise that he will beg them on his knees on her behalf to forgive her, an utter disgrace of a mother, for abandoning them there.  On the beach.  A 3-year-old and 7-year-old.  Alone.  With no food or clothing at all.  With nothing at all.  50 years ago. Promise.
And she passes.
Only one of thousands of stories, Mrs. Kim said.  One of hundreds of thousands of stories.  Wives, sons, grandfathers, sisters…wondering everyday for 50 years in wretched hopelessness into the empty air.
And she beseeches me.  Would I help those of the first generation who are slowly dying one-by-one to recover blood-relationships broken by war and politics and oceans?  Because as the younger generation, we have agile tongues and political know-how and citizenship.  Because “han” might be able to be relieved for the remaining few who haven’t lived a day of the some 18,250 that have passed since without it…without wondering.  Without sighing.  Without grieving.
As I sit here thinking about Mrs. Kim and the thousands like her, I feel like maybe I can taste a very tiny, infinitesimally small bit of what “han” might feel like.  Han, the unspeakably deep pain and sorrow that is the supposed burden, almost inheritance, of the Korean people.  A feeling like your chest is going to burst.  Like every new breath of air is stale.  The choke of bitter indignation and anguish and that the world is just wrong and wrong and wrong.  When you can feel your heart beating in your head and in your hands and in your soles.  And you squeeze your eyes as tight as you can because you hate the tears because you know they’re worthless.  Because it’s not possible to ever cry enough tears for them.  For the divided families.  And their 50 years of han.
How do you resolve 50 years of isolation? What is the remedy for 50 years of han?
I do not know.
But I do know that we must act.
Time is running out.

Sae-Rom Chae, Class of 2010

On October 3, 2007, the U.S. Senate launched the Congressional Commission on Divided Families, the first and only official U.S. government entity providing assistance to Korean Americans seeking to contact and reunite with family members in North Korea.