It’s been 65 years since the Korean War ended in 1953, which also signifies the last time hundreds of thousands saw their loved ones. For many Koreans, who either have family in the north or moved to the south prior to the war, separation from family is a unfortunate reality. Photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl, inspired by the story of her own great uncle, who died at 90 without ever knowing the fate of his parents and sisters, explores this tragedy in A Long Separation. By seeking out, photographing, and speaking with Koreans who haven’t seen their family since the war, she’s bringing to light to heart-wrenching plight thousands of Koreans face.
The situation is especially difficult for Korean immigrants to America, who are not eligible for the periodic reunions between separated families—or yisan kajok as they are called in Korean—organized by the North Korean and South Korean Red Cross. Legally, it’s impossible for South Koreans to have contact with North Koreans—and vice versa—meaning many have not seen their spouses, children, siblings, and parents in over 60 years. With many family members entering their 80s and 90s and the prospects of a reunion seem dim, making Pohl’s project all the more poignant. For one country, now separated in two, the divide is more than politics. Beyond sensational headlines, Pohl reminds us of the human toll of war.
A Long Separation is currently on view via a traveling exhibition around libraries in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts until May 12, 2018. We had a chance to speak with Pohl about her touching project and what she hopes the public will get out of it. Read on for our exclusive interview.
Members of your own family sparked this project. Can you share a bit about your great uncle’s story?
My great uncle moved from the north to the south in his early 20s, just after the Korean War. He wanted to explore life away from his family, especially his dad, whom he found a bit overbearing. But he never imagined he wouldn’t see his sisters or his parents again. I learned of his story when I was in my early 20s, living and working in South Korea far, far away from my family. I spent holidays with my great uncle and he always talked about missing his family and what a terrible son he was. He cried and I cried with him. I couldn’t imagine never seeing my family again. I became very curious to learn more about his story and other people in his situation.
How did you find your participants?
I worked with translators and fixers in South Korea to help me find people to photograph and interview. One of these translators connected me to a woman at the South Korean Red Cross who offered a lot of assistance in finding divided family members. The South Korean Red Cross helps organize family reunions when they happen. There have been 20 reunions since they began in 2000 and at the inter-Korea summit last week, President Moon of South Korea and Kim Jong-un of North Korea agreed to hold family reunions in August. This is great news and I hope it really happens (reunions have been canceled/postponed before).
What was the most common thread you found between the people you photographed?
Most people I met with said they wanted political issues set aside and they just wanted to see their loved ones in the north.
North Korea is frequently in the headlines for its politics. What do you think most people forget when it comes to the division of Korea?
I think most people forget or don’t even know in the first place that these divided families exist. South Koreans and North Koreans are not legally allowed to call, meet, write, Facetime, email or otherwise communicate with each other. All these divided family members I met have been involuntarily separated from their family in North Korea for 65 years or more. That’s a humanitarian issue.
Why the choice of a moving exhibition?
I want to reach as many people as possible. By having the exhibit printed on the outside of a vehicle, I’m hoping I get a lot of accidental viewers and visitors. I’ll be driving the truck to public libraries (and one community center) from southeastern Virginia to the Boston area. I have a dream of getting stuck in traffic on the interstate so people see the exhibition there, too.
What do you hope people take away from the work?
I want people to reflect on the long-term unintended consequences of the Korean War and war in general. And I hope people realize that there are real, normal people living in North Korea—people who are loved by their children, parents, brothers, and sisters living in South Korea and the United States.
Why do you think it’s important to continue to ask our elders about their history?
They all have stories that need to be saved for future generations either because of what they’ve lived through, what they’ve learned about life, or both. In the case of the people I met for this project, they all lived through historical events: the Korean War, the division of the Korean Peninsula, dictatorships in the south, etc. We can learn so much by listening to their first-hand accounts. And so many are eager to talk and really be heard.
What are your hopes for the future of the project?
I want to continue photographing and interviewing divided family members, especially ones who live in the United States.