My grandmother carried my 2-week-old mother in her arms when she boarded a ship bringing North Korean refugees to South Korea during the Korean War in December 1950. Friends and family had urged Grandma to leave her daughter behind, worried that she would never survive the frigid winter journey. After finally arriving at a refugee camp in the South, the baby contracted smallpox. Never one to give up, Grandma hid her behind an outhouse and enlisted a team of women to take turns guarding her from the authorities, who took sick babies from their mothers.
More than a half-century later, I would make seven trips to North Korea in roughly as many years, as a journalist writing for a South Korean newspaper. The night before each trip, my grandmother would call and ask me to look up the relatives she had to leave behind on the other side of the border. She hoped I could finally find her — our — family in North Korea. Though inside I was torn, I had to tell her it was simply not possible. As one of the few reporters allowed above the DMZ, I was obliged to maintain professional objectivity.
Those in South and North Korea really are like members of an extended family. Before the country was divided in 1945, Korea was a single country with no history of significant linguistic or cultural differences. One in five South Koreans like me has relatives still living in the North. This is why South Koreans, despite the history of a brutal civil war and periodic diplomatic clashes, still share an intense feeling of kinship with North Koreans.
Last week’s summit meeting between the two Koreas rekindled this familiar feeling. When the 30-something North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was embraced by South KoreaPresident Moon Jae-in, three decades his senior, it looked almost as if a long-estranged son were being welcomed home by his patient father. South Koreans had previously had an impression of Kim as a cocky upstart, so they were surprised to see him as an apparently pleasant, even respectful, visitor. Another surprise was that Kim brought his wife along for the trip — something his father never did.
Perhaps most tellingly, Kim departed from diplomatic protocol in the way he addressed Moon. The Korean language is hierarchical, with different ways of addressing oneself according to seniority. Since this was a conversation between heads of state, Kim should have followed Moon’s lead and referred to himself with the high-status designation “na.” But in an official statement, Kim used “jeo” — a first-person pronoun effectively casting himself as the junior partner to the elder Moon. Kim sounded almost adolescent when he reportedly asked Moon if he could really use the newly established hotline to call him anytime. (Moon had to gently explain that calls needed to be scheduled in advance so officials on both sides could prepare.)
Here in Philadelphia, I find myself having to explain why South Koreans reacted so emotionally — and positively — to the summit. People ask how we can trust the North Koreans when they say they will abandon nuclear weapons. I reply with a metaphor. Imagine you have a brother who dropped out of school and got into trouble. He keeps calling you to bail him out of jail. In his darkest moments, he even threatened to set your house on fire. Friends are urging you to give up on him. But how can you disown him? He is family.
One of the major outcomes of the summit was the agreement to resume the reunions of separated relatives this coming August. That message came eight years too late for my grandmother. She died in 2010, having never visited her elder sister, who used to carry her on a back sling through the city of Hamhung. My grandmother and her sister spent their lives just 200 miles apart from each other, but a world away. Though my grandmother is now gone, what has stayed with me is the message she passed down: Don’t give up, not on family, and not on hope.
Soomin Seo teaches journalism at Temple University. She is a former reporter who visited North Korea seven times from 2000 to 2008.