Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Korean Reunification

On Monday, I saw a documentary as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, called Tiger Spirit.
Korean Canadian filmmaker Min Sook Lee intended her project to focus on the elusive and possibly extinct Korean Tiger, which is an important symbol for the Korean fighting spirit.
During filming however Lee's attention turns to the 56-year-old wall separating the two Koreas and millions of family members.
The heavily guarded DMZ was created in 1953, following the 3-year Korean war that ended in stalemate and armistice between the communist-backed North and U.S.-backed South.
At the time, Koreans assumed reunification would shortly follow.
Separation then was 'merely' geographical. It has over the years become a wide cultural expanse. South Korea has opened to capitalism while North Korea of course has grown more isolated.
During the film, we meet former North Koreans who defected south and find themselves strangers adrift in a foreign country. They must attend indoctrination classes to repatriate. They rely on each other. They start families. Get jobs. But when they close their eyes, they still dream of the Korea they know in the North. They can never return.
However, the film culminates with a 3-day reunification event between family members separated during the war. Those who fled to the South are now well into their 70s, 80s and 90s. They are picked by a lottery to attend. Many who have applied discover that their siblings and cousins have died off in the five decades.
The reunions are tightly controlled and observed. Lee doesn't tell us exactly who is observing. We know the North Koreans are under watch, but we must also assume the South Korean government has its own interests in the event. Participants are allowed only two hours of privacy in a hotel room during one of the days.
Those who are selected see old men and women looking back at them. They try to communicate through the barriers of time and dementia. As the last meeting ends, the North Koreans board buses to return them to Pyongyang. Their old family members waving them off can be heard crying and breaking down as they see their siblings probably for the last time.
It's a heartbreaking tale created by one of the most enduring walls of the last half century.

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