GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
With the help of translator Janis Koh, left, Tae-Ryong Cho talks about life in prewar Korea. Here, Koh shares pictures of her own family. Cho hopes to see his family again someday, after 55 years without even a photograph.
A national campaign aims to reunite Americans with relatives in North Korea
Tae-Ryong Cho was a college student in Seoul when the Korean War broke out in 1950, severing him permanently from his parents and five siblings in the northern city of Ichon, without even a photograph as a keepsake.
To learn more
Meeting: A discussion of the project, conducted in Korean, will be held Monday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Korean United Methodist Church, 1639 Keeaumoku St.
On the Net: www.saemsori.org
"In my mind, I draw and paint my parents' pictures many, many times," said Cho, who later moved to Hawaii and devoted himself to the Korean American community as a pastor. "I'm 75, but I'm like a child when I think of my family. It's very hard. It's been 55 years, no contact. I cannot phone, cannot write."
A national initiative set to launch here today aims to document family stories like Cho's and ultimately help Korean Americans reconnect with relatives in North Korea before time runs out for this aging population. A few Koreans living in South Korea and Japan have had reunions with relatives in the north, but Korean Americans have been left out, said Janis Koh, the local contact for the campaign, known as Saemsori.
Saemsori was organized by the Eugene Bell Foundation, a humanitarian organization based in Clarksville, Md., that has provided extensive tuberculosis treatment and disaster relief in North Korea. Despite strained relations between Washington and Pyongyang, the foundation might have the credibility with both sides to build a bridge, Koh said.
The campaign was to be launched today in downtown Honolulu at an invitation-only event featuring isle Chief Justice Ronald Moon, U.S. Rep. Ed Case and Stephen Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation. Announcements will follow in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York next month.
"This program is very exciting for thousands of Koreans ... giving hope that they may be permitted some access to the North to determine the whereabouts or status of their relatives or loved ones," said Moon, whose paternal grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in 1903 from Pyongyang. "I would be totally elated to discover my genealogy that extends to the north."
Saemsori, which means "fresh spring voice," has three components, according to Alice Suh, Washington office director for the Eugene Bell Foundation and the director of the project. The first is to collect the human stories -- oral histories, letters and photographs of Korean Americans who have family members in North Korea, which closed its borders in 1950. The second is to create a database to expedite efforts for reunification if the U.S. government decides to pursue the issue. The third is to try to get a fix on the number of people with divided families, through polling or a census effort.
"We know that this number is in the tens of thousands, possibly in the hundreds of thousands," Suh said. "They are fully loyal to the U.S., but they care about their families. Especially for Koreans, it's so important to have family ties. Even not being able to go to your father's grave because it's in North Korea, it's a huge burden to bear."
The Eugene Bell Foundation, founded in 1995, has provided tuberculosis treatment and prevention for more than 200,000 patients in North Korea. Linton, its chairman and a research associate at Harvard University, has made more than 60 trips to North Korea since 1979 and served as an interpreter for former President Jimmy Carter in meetings with the late North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung.
"The people on this project seemingly have the connections to be able to do something, regardless of the tensions," Moon said. "If they can gain access, I think that's great."
Cho is sure his parents have died, since they would be older than 100, and he knows that two of his brothers were killed resisting communist forces in North Korea. But he has hope that two of his sisters, who would be in their 70s now, are still alive.
"I think they should be living, but I cannot say," he said. "I hope and I hope."