It is oddly poetic that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's death fell in the days leading up to Christmas, one of the most family-centered times of the year. While the abuses under Kim and his father's regime have been mainly directed at their own people, the far-reaching consequences have touched many more, even my own family in the U.S.
Speculations abound about what Kim's death portends for international relations. Only a few voices, however, are heard of the millions who have suffered most directly from the dictatorships of the Dear and Eternal Leaders. It is no secret that North Korea routinely violates human rights. Modern-day concentration camps are reminiscent of those of prior genocides. Its nuclear arms program keeps the U.S. and other leading countries on their toes. But these are not the only items on its rap sheet.
Since the Korean War, millions of Koreans have been separated from family members. The vast majority never hear from their loved ones again.
Kim's death took Koreans to memories nearly 60 years back, to the signing of the armistice that currently keeps North and South Korea at war. This means the countries are divided until further notice, separated by the strip of land known as the Demilitarized Zone. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives — entire families have been irreparably fragmented ever since.
My grandfather, now deceased, was one of the victims. He was not a casualty of the fighting or the mass famines in North Korea that killed up to 2 million people. Rather, he was the victim of a forced family separation when he lost his older brother after the Korean War. His brother had been a respected doctor in the Korean army prior to the war, when Korea was occupied by Japan, and was stationed in China.
After liberation, he was forced to stay at his post until the beginning of the 1950s, when the Korean War broke out. North Korea's greatest ally was the People's Republic of China, along with the former Soviet Union. My grandfather and his family received a single letter from him around this time. They did not hear from again.
For more than half his life, my grandfather never knew what fate had befallen his older brother. Torture, starvation, execution — all were and remain possibilities to those under the control of the North, including its allies during the Korean War.
Today, approximately 20,000 families have been reunited in meetings jointly orchestrated by the North and South Korean governments. It is hard to think of another event that simultaneously contains such long-awaited jubilation followed by immense grief, for these brief reunions end with the families being separated once again. They take place only during times of relative tolerance between the two nations.
Currently, there are roughly 80,000 South Koreans registered with the government to be potentially reunited with their North Korean family members. The number of broken families, however, is grossly undercounted. An estimated 40,000 people are believed to have already died or given up hope. Another 4,000 on the registered list die yearly. The unreported numbers from North Korea are obviously not figured in.
Such a reunion was never realized by my grandfather and his brother. In the 1990s, after 40 years of suppressed hope, he finally learned the truth through word-of-mouth connections in the U.S. His brother had passed away some time after the armistice was signed in 1953. As for precisely how, where or when, he was never able to find out. True closure thus evaded my grandfather.
However, he was still more fortunate than most separated Koreans, who will likely never know the fates of their lost relatives. Kim Jong Il's death delays the opportunities for further family meetings, as North Korea is in national mourning until Dec. 29. Before his death, another set of reunions was expected around Jan. 23, the day of the Korean New Year. The mourning period, however, pushes back any other agenda, making the possibility of the Jan. 23 reunions highly unlikely.
The fact that the death of a globally infamous dictator has any meaning to families outside his country is strange. But the consequences of North Korea's actions are widespread and long-term, as countless people, not just in the Koreas but also in the U.S., are descendants of the forced family separations.
It is important to note that little will change for those still waiting to be reunited. The same goes for the millions now under the rule of Kim's son, Kim Jong Un. Even my grandmother, who left North Korea before the division, dismissively said, "Why is there such a fuss about the death of one evil man?" But let there be a positive light to come of this event.
For those of us fortunate enough to spend the upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays with our families, Kim Jong Il's passing can serve as an unexpected reminder of one of the most important aspects of our lives. We remember that in a world where people are still forcibly separated from their loved ones, being in the company of our family members should never be taken for granted.
I am sure my grandfather and his brother would agree.
By Yoonj Kim, who attends Northwestern University.