It has been exactly 70 years since military commanders of the United States, North Korea, and China signed an armistice to halt active combat in the Korean War. They recommended that the corresponding governments return within 90 days to settle the question of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Korea and “the peaceful settlement of the Korean question.” But a formal peace agreement was never reached: the war technically continues to this day.
That war has defined my identity and continues to guide my life’s work. When I was adopted from South Korea in 1966 at the age of eight, everyone thought I was a war orphan. My documents indicated that my father had died during the Korean War and my mother died giving birth to me. I had no other family.
I dealt with my adoption by forgetting everything about Korea. The amnesia was so complete that if my Korean mother had looked me in the face, I would not have known who she was.
My journey to recover my memories and recuperate my lost identity led me to make two personal documentaries, First Person Plural (2000) and In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010), both of which explore adoption, identity, and memory. It was through the making of these films that I came to understand that the trauma underlying my adoption stemmed from the Korean War—and that the war is a collective trauma that has defined much of the Korean diaspora.
Much of my current work as a filmmaker is about challenging the dominant U.S. narrative of the Korean War as past and “forgotten.” Inspired by what author Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “ethical remembering,” my films focus on the voices of those who are often marginalized, including war survivors and their descendants, women, and adopted people impacted by the war’s legacies. What I have found in highlighting stories of ordinary people through films like Memory of Forgotten War, Geographies of Kinship, and the oral history project, Legacies of the Korean War, is that it is through their eyes that we can begin to understand the war’s complexities, the ways in which the war divided family members politically and geographically—and how it has forced divisions within people’s hearts. My most recent film Crossings is another act of ethical remembering that foregrounds the voices of Korean women and their tenacious desire for reconciliation at the DMZ, and the steadfast solidarity of women peacemakers globally to end this intractable conflict.
Fought between 1950-53, the Korean War was the first “hot war” of the Cold War era, one that is notorious for its brutality. The U.S. military carried out what many scholars refer to as a “scorched earth” campaign destroying homes, crops, livestock and sometimes entire villages. Devastation was particularly acute in the north through heavy air bombing.
In spite of 4 million deaths (including 3 million Koreans, a majority of them civilians) and the constant threat of renewed fighting, most Americans have no idea the Korean War never ended. Yet generations of Koreans bear the emotional scars of having lost loved ones to death or national partition, many still unable to speak openly about atrocities suffered by family members who lie buried in unmarked mass graves. Post-war generations are cut off from the experiences of their parents and grandparents because the latter are unable to articulate their wartime trauma, often passing on this trauma to the next generation through their silence.
Today, amid escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea, it is essential that we examine the terrible human toll of America’s longest-running war before it erupts into renewed fighting.
As it turns out, I was not orphaned during the war. I was born after the fighting had ended and was adopted during the Park Chung Hee military dictatorship. The fact that the war lacked resolution led South Korea to focus all its resources on building a strong military while pursuing an export-led economic development strategy. There was no social safety net for women like my mother, who did not die in childbirth, but was a widow with five children. With international adoptions serving as a pressure valve for over-population and rampant poverty, I was funneled into an increasingly industrialized adoption system that would eventually send 200,000 children overseas.
On this 70th anniversary of the armistice, I am thinking of all the families that continue to be divided by Korea’s ongoing partition. Although I will forever be grateful that I found and reunited with my Korean family, I continue to live with the anguish that, as a child, I was forced to forsake their memory in order to survive in America. I’ve come to understand that the self-erasure of my early years in Korea was abetted by the fact that the Korean War, the main event that shaped who I am, had already been erased in the national consciousness of my adoptive country.
The Korean War is seared into the collective memory of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ. Of the millions of divided family members, about 20,000 have been temporarily reunited in 21 rounds of family meetings since 1985. Tens of thousands on both sides of the border are on waiting lists to be selected by lottery for the next round of reunions. Most of those waiting are in their 80s and 90s, holding onto life for the possibility of seeing their parents, children, spouses, or siblings again.
It’s long past time to replace the Korean War Armistice with a permanent peace agreement, and for divided families to reunite. Seventy years is enough.
Deann Borshay Liem is an Emmy-winning documentarian known for films that explore war, memory, family and identity. Her film, Crossings, about 30 women peacemakers who cross the DMZ for peace, streams on PBS.org until August 22. Her film, Geographies of Kinship, airs on America Reframed/WORLD on July 27, 8pm ET/5pm PT. See mufilms.org for more info.