by Katherine Cho, Program Coordinator, Colin Powell School
Last week I had the opportunity to welcome an audience of fifty to a film screening and forum for the documentary Memory of Forgotten War. This compelling documentary focuses on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice, sharing the deeply personal stories of four Korean War survivors. These narratives include dealing with, for some, recollections of daily bombings, searching for missing family members, and struggling to survive in a newly divided Korea.
With the division at the 38th parallel, residents of either country could no longer communicate with one another, and families that once easily moved between neighboring cities were cut off from each other. In addition to the forced physical separation, the documentary also highlighted the societal pressure of distancing any ties with North Korea relations, family members, and friends.
Several people featured in the documentary described the evolution of “ghost families”: family members that were never included in newly formed family registries due to the fear that acknowledging such connections or certain aspects of their personal background would label them as North Korean sympathizers. A false accusation or whispered rumor had the potential of destroying any ability to survive in post-war Korea, forcing many already isolated people to keep silent about their past. Ghosting siblings or parents and often years of their own lives was a wrenching process. Most, if not all, of the interviewees in the film emigrated to the United States soon after, unable to continue denying their past and family, desiring to acknowledge their full lives and loved ones.
Like many of my second-generation Korean-American peers, I was raised to speak the language, spent my Sundays after church attending Korean school, and honed my language and cultural understanding through several Korean classes in college. When asked about my own ethnicity, I usually answer, ”Korean,” or “Korean-American,” to be more specific. And if asked to make a distinction between North and South, I am often taken aback, perhaps in the same way people reply, “American” as opposed to “North American.”
After watching the film, I tried recounting the number of conversations I have had about the Korean War. I might be able to increase the number if I include conversations about North Korean refugees, labor camps, and human rights. But even in those conversations, the focus was not about the division of countries, families, and friends, but about the repercussions long after the initial divide. I realized that my own understanding of the Korean War and its context, history, and trauma had been ghosted in my community, both within the formal American educational system and within my Korean-American circles.
Ramsay Liem, one of the film’s co-directors, described this phenomenon as a “forced trauma”—a strategy to erase parts of history, and as a result, also eliminate what was then considered “shameful” connections. What happens to a community that cannot grieve for lost family ties? What happens to a new generation of Koreans who never fully knows the past, never fully knows their own families, and are never fully able to acknowledge their own identity?
As the discussion came to a close, the panel challenged the audience to change the culture of silence and transform our society. ”There’s so much that’s been hidden,” said panel member Sukjong Hong, a fellow at the Korea Institute, “and there’s so much yet to be told.”
As I consider this call to action by my fellow Korean-Americans, I look forward to my next visit home and to future conversations that will help resurrect the memories and ghosts of this forgotten war.
For more information about the film, please visit the film’s website.
To learn more about the Korean War, please visit the multi-media project Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the “Forgotten War”, and the campaign Korea Peace Days, a joint collaboration between the Alliance for Scholars Concerned about Korea and the National Campaign to End the Korean War.
Memory of a Forgotten War was presented by the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership, the Documentary Forum@CCNY,the Media and Communication Arts Department, Third World Newsreel, the International Studies Program, the Asian Studies Program, the Student’s Association for International Studies (SAIS) and the Korean-American Scientists and Engineers Student Association at CCNY.
This event is part of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership’s public programming tied together under the theme of forgiveness, examined through the lenses of Colin Powell School departments and programs.