Divided family

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A divided family is a family that is divided between two or more countries due to conflict between such countries. Members of a divided family often do not have chance to live together.


The division of the Korean peninsula is one of the last remaining relics of the Cold War. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, there has been virtually no contact between the citizens of the two countries, including the many families who were divided during the turmoil that engulfed Korea after liberation from Japanese rule and during the three-year Korean War. Many people in both North and South Korea have lost contact with the rest of their family, and are unable to communicate to them due to strict regulations across borders.

In the 1980s, South Korea held special programs to reunite divided families. Some divided families between South Korea and Korean diaspora who live in Western countries were able to reunite. However, reuniting divided families between the two Koreas remains difficult due to lack of communication.

The problems posed by these divided families is a pressing humanitarian issue that has been used for political ends by the governments on both sides of the 38th parallel over the last five decades. Most families do not know the fate of their relatives on the other side of the border. Following the historic summit of 2000 in Pyongyang, there have been several rounds of reunions, but the number of families affected remains low. For many of the first generation, divided families' time is running out, as many pass away before seeing their relatives again.


Year Korea Year United States
1910–1945 Korea’s loss of sovereignty and colonization by Japan: millions of Koreans disperse as a result of colonization 1903 The first Korean Americans arrive in Hawaii as laborers.
1950–1953 Korean War: Seoul, the capital, is taken in 3 days. Families separate, thinking they will only be gone a few days. The United Nations Command includes a provision in the armistice regarding the ‘voluntary’ repatriation of displaced persons. But after the armistice, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), at the 38th parallel between North and South Korea, becomes the most heavily militarized border in the world.
The picture of Korean War, in 1950
1970–1980 South Korea begins to catch up to the D.P.R.K. in economic development.

1971-1972 Red Cross talks regarding divided families end without agreement.

1975 Koreans begin immigrating to the United States in large numbers, becoming one of the top five countries of origin of immigrants to the United States

after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing quotas on the number of Asians allowed to enter the United States. Korean American pastors begin to visit North Korea to search for their family members as well as the family members of those in their congregations.

1983 KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) hosts a ‘Campaign to Reunite Ten Million Divided Families’ telethon that attracts millions looking for their divided families, but sadly only within South Korea, due to the D.P.R.K.’s non-participation. Still, after the 95 minute program was extended to 453 hours and 45 minutes due to overwhelming response, 10,000 out of 109,000 applicants were reunited. 1980 Choong Lim Chun, a Canadian, begins to reunite divided families, including Korean Americans, after receiving a letter and picture of his older sister in 1979 from a security guard for North Korea’s Olympic team, while working as a reporter for the New Korea Times. Although Korean Americans initiate contact, North Koreans seek their relatives as well by advertising in North Korean media and later, applying to meet them. After his death in 1995, his wife Soon Young continues his work.
1989–1991 Three “Golden Years”: Korean Americans, e.g. Soo Gyung Lim, publicly advocate for reunification and reunions. Travel to the North is abundant.
1992–1997 “Dark Times”: North Korea ends Korean American visits due to complaints from its general populace about preferential treatment given to the family members of Korean Americans.
2000 (Aug 15-18) 1st round of ROK-DPRK family reunions (Nov 30-Dec 2) 2nd round of ROK-DPRK family reunions [1] 2000 Historic June 13–15 Summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il: South and North Korea agree to host reunions.

Only Korean Americans who are related to South Korean candidates are able to participate. According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, there are 1.2/1.41 million Korean Americans.

2001 (Feb 26-28) 3rd of ROK-DPRK family reunions Trial exchange of correspondence (300 members from each side)

(Mar 15) 12,664 of 116,460 South Koreans who originally applied to the ROK National Red Cross die less than a year later – 10.9% of the total number of applicants from the South.

2001 Korean Americans, encouraged by South Korean reunions, collect more than 100,000 signatures in support of Korean American reunions. Because of their work, House Concurrent Resolution 77 (Rep. Xavier Becerra and Rep. Ed Royce) and Senate Concurrent Resolution 90 pass, in support of Korean American reunions.
2002–2006 (Apr 28-May 3, 2002) 4th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Sep 13-18, 2002) 5th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Sep 13-18, 2003) 6th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Jun 27-Jul 2, 2003) 7th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Sep 20-25, 2003) 8th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Mar 29(Apr 1?)-3, 2004) 9th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Jul 11-16, 2004) 10th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Aug 15, 2005) 1st video ROK-DPRK reunions

(Aug 26-31, 2005) 11th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Nov 5-10, 2005) 12th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Nov 24-25, 2005) 2nd video ROK-DPRK reunions

(Dec 8-9, 2005) 3rd video ROK-DPRK reunions

(Mar 20-25, 2006) 13th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Jun 19-30, 2006) 14th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Feb 27-28, 2006) 4th video ROK-DPRK reunions

Korean Divided Families' Reunion
2007 (May 9–14) 15th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

(Oct 17-22) 16th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions

2007 Divided Families Foundation (previously Saemsori) lobbies to create the Congressional Commission on Divided Families, co-chaired by Rep. Mark Kirk and Rep. Jim Matheson.

A State Department letter to Rep. Jim Matheson directs him to Saemsori (now Divided Families Foundation) and the Korean Red Cross regarding his divided family constituent, Wan Chan No. The Congressional Research Service estimates there are 104,000 to 500,000 Korean Americans with North Korean family members and states only 80 Korean Americans have met their relatives through their kin in South Korean reunions.

2008 No reunions after the election of President Lee Myung-bak and his stop to unconditional aid 2008 Sec. 1265 of H.R. 4986, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, directs the President to report to Congress on family reunions between U.S. citizens and their relatives in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
2009 (Sep 26-Oct 1) 17th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions 2009 House Report 111-187 (accompanying H.R. 3081 – State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2010) “urges the Special Representative on North Korea Policy, as the senior official handling North Korea issues, to prioritize the issues involving Korean divided families, and to, if necessary, appoint a coordinator for such families.”
2010 (Oct 30-Nov 5) 18th round of ROK-DPRK family reunions 2010–2011 Divided Families Foundation restarts lobbying, internship program with 111th Congress and the Obama Administration

Divided Families Foundation partners with the American Red Cross to deliver 3 Red Cross Messages to the D.P.R.K. (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea)

2012 (Mar 24) Divided Families Foundation kicks off its registration drive with 588 letters to addresses received from the South Korean Ministry of Unification

(Mar 27) Amb. Robert King recommends that Korean American divided families members register with the American Red Cross, just as in South Korea.


Of the 1.7 million Americans of Korean descent that now reside in the United States (2010 Census), an estimated 100,000 Korean Americans are divided family members, who still have kin living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K. or North Korea).

The vast majority of these divided family memberswere separated by the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950 (65-75%, while 25-35% were separated after liberation right before the Korean War, KDF 70). Millions uprooted their homes in a matter of days (as Seoul was taken in three days) and fled as refugees, to avoid the calamities of war, while others lost all communication with their relations, due to the iron curtain that dropped upon the northern half of the peninsula, leaving them in complete darkness regarding the whereabouts and well-being of their loved ones who happened to live in the North.

There were fathers and brothers who left their mothers behind, thinking they would be able to return in a few days, only to lose their relatives for a lifetime. Mothers who left their children behind, only to never be able to see them again. Children who became lost in the mad scramble of huge crowds of people flooding the paths to escape.

“By 28 June 2001, a mere 11 months after the first round of reunions in August 2000, 12,664 of the 116,460 original applicants for reunion had died. These figures clearly underline the pressing need for a solution to be found to this issue before the first generation of divided families finally disappear from the two Koreas’ societies, and the infringement of their fundamental human rights they have endured for so long becomes irreversible.”

“Clearly the most stressful psychological factor in their predicament is the uncertainty surrounding their loved ones’ fates. 83% had no idea of the whereabouts or status of their relatives. Although a small percentage of respondents (3%) said they had no desire to contact family members in the North, 88% said that they would like to contact their relatives.”

-Korea’s Divided Families: Fifty years of separationby James A. Foley, p. 63.


1. Korea’s Divided Families: Fifty years of separation by James A. Foley: Publication Date: December 20, 2002 | ISBN 0415297389 | ISBN 978-0415297387

2. Faithful Endurance: An Ethnography of Korean Family Dispersalby Choong Soon Kim: ISBN 0816510717 ISBN 978-0816510719

3. Koreanweb's website: http://www.koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr06-04.htm

4. Divided Families Foundation's website: http://dividedfamilies.org

  1. ^ Choe, Sang-Hun (Feb 20, 2014). "Amid Hugs and Tears, Korean Families Divided by War Reunite". The New York Times. Archived from the original on Feb 21, 2014. Retrieved Jan 12, 2015. 

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