New Korean War Documentary Shows Old Wounds Still Hurt

A new documentary explores the legacy of separation left by the Korean War.

Min Yong Lee, featured in the documentary Memories of Forgotten War, is pictured here (left) during a reunion with his brother in North Korea. Photos courtesy of Ramsay and Deann Borshay Liem.

This story first appeared in KoreAm Journal April 2013.

It is a well-known reality that the stories and voices from the Korean War have long been muted. For such a bloody and longstanding conflict, little seems to be known about the “forgotten war,” even 60 years out. But with their latest documentary project, Memories of Forgotten War, Ramsay Liem and Deann Borshay Liem are hoping to reignite conversations about the legacy of the still unresolved conflict, which took place between 1950 and 1953.

Ramsay and Deann, who are brother and sister-in-law, wrote, produced and directed the film. Deann, a Korean American adoptee, has worked in film for over two decades; her work includes the Emmy-nominated documentary First Person Plural (2000) and the personal film In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010). Ramsay is a psychology professor at Boston College, where he specializes in community psychology and Asian American and Korean studies.

Memories of Forgotten War represents part of a much larger, multimedia project exploring the residual trauma of the Korean War, which left the peninsula divided. Born out of the Liems’ earlier oral history project and the accompanying gallery exhibit, “Still Present Past: Korean Americans in the Forgotten War,” the film centers on four survivor stories.  The documentary’s release coincides with this year’s 60thanniversary of the armistice, which was signed in July of 1953. The filmmakers spoke to KoreAm last month about the project and the relevance of this history to Korean Americans today.

Why did you decide to make this specific documentary, and was there a specific story you wanted to tell through it?

Ramsay: The main reason for doing it was my own sense that the war was something very difficult for people in the Korean American community to talk about, and I was aware many younger people had some sense that their parents and their grandparents had lived through experiences that they didn’t know about, but had a really significant impact on their lives.

In our community there isn’t a lot of discussion of war experiences.

Why is it important to keep these stories alive and to document them for later generations to hear?

Deann: One of the reasons for making this film has to do with this idea that the Korean War is the “forgotten war” in this country. … I could never really understand why it would be considered a “forgotten war,” given so many people were affected by it and so many Korean Americans who have come to this country have been affected by it, [when] in some ways the decision to immigrate to the U.S. was in part because of the war. I think it’s important for us to know this history.I

Ramsay: When I did [interviews for Korean War] oral histories, one of the things that was very common with older people was their own desire to have younger people know this history because they were also aware it’s been difficult to talk to children and grandchildren about the personal experiences they had during the war, and yet …  younger Korean Americans could never fully understand who they are as Korean Americans without knowing their origins. And part of their origins, for better or for worse, is the tragic history of the war.

The other thing I would say is most Americans, because the war is forgotten, there is so little understanding of current relationships between the U.S. and North and South Korea, and those relationships—and particularly the hostilities between the North and the United States—grew out of the Korean War. Without knowing something about that history, the American public in general can’t really understand why it is we seem so often to be at these various impasses with our relationships with North Korea.

Deann: The younger generation of Korean Americans … have also really expressed not understanding their parents or their grandparents. The Korean War to them is an abstract concept because they never experienced it themselves, and their parents, their grandparents never talk about it. One of the participants in the [“Still Present Past”] exhibit …  described it as an “unhappy wind that always blew through his family.” He could never put his finger on what was going on in his family, but eventually he learned that this “unhappy wind” had to do with the Korean War. I think that there’s a way a lack of education and a lack of understanding [that] contribute to family dynamics that we may not be aware of.

This film is coming out at a very interesting time, with North Korea making headlines practically daily now. I wanted to know how you think this film could add to or expand upon discussions we’re currently having about North Korea and South Korea?

Ramsay: Without knowing what this war was, why it was fought and particularly the depths of the devastation it created—both of the infrastructures of the entire Korean peninsula [and] also the kind of devastation it particularly had on ordinary citizens—people can’t appreciate the deep hostility that was never resolved because the war ended with an armistice, as opposed to a peace treaty. Those hostilities never ended, and they’re expressed both in North Korean policies and attitudes towards the United States and, similarly, from the [U.S.] towards North Korea.  People think this grows out of recent events, and to some extent it does. But that hostility really has its roots in an unfinished war.

The film focuses really on families who were separated by the 38th parallel. Why did you choose to take this route with the film?

Deann: Originally, when we started interviewing them, we all knew they had separated families, what we didn’t realize—for me, anyways—[was] the specific nature of how the families were separated and how different their stories were.

There was one story that really stuck out for me, and that was of a man who had been separated from his family because of the redrawing of the 38th parallel. I had never heard a story like that.

Ramsay: [Everyone in the film] shared this experience of separation and division, and they all experienced the division in such arbitrary ways, depending on where they were, what their circumstances were. In the case of Suntae Chun … it was simply an accident that the armistice talks began in his hometown, and when that happened, because he was away from his hometown, he couldn’t get back in. And as you know from the film, his father couldn’t get out. It’s just a dramatic example of not only the sort of very common experience of being separated from family members, but in such incredibly arbitrary ways.

Deann: I think, a lot of times in documentaries, the storyline really comes through in the editing, and that actually happened with the making of this film as well. As we started assembling the film and seeing the kind of trajectory with each person’s story, this wasn’t just about the lived experiences of the war and the day-to-day struggle of it, but the long-term impact of it among these families, and the legacy of separation emerged as the key theme.  It’s interesting. Suntae Chun’s story of Kaesong—it’s very dramatic and tragic, and yet all of the stories are very distinct.

Was there something specific that triggered your interest in this topic?

Ramsay: Primarily the issue of silence about the war in American society, in general, but particularly in the Korean American community. … It’s very common to hear people from your generation say … they knew very little about this history. And if you speak to Korean American leaders within the community, they also acknowledge that very few people feel comfortable going back to that part of their histories in particular, and having that everyday conversation in churches or in friendship groups or in families.

It is really just a concern about why it’s been so difficult for people living in this country to acknowledge that America has its Cold War history that began in an incredibly brutal hot war, the Korean War. Why has it been so difficult for the American public and American institutions … to give attention to America’s histories of war, in particular, the history that involves Korea?

Would you say then this film is political?

Ramsay: It’s impossible to not be political virtually with anything we do or say, even though we may not recognize that, you’re always taking a position with regard to any topic and sometimes it’s a very controversial topic. It is very difficult to do anything about the Korean War without acknowledging, of course, that there are many different perspectives about it, interpretations of how it started and why it started. But I think in the broadest sense, we recognize that in producing a film like this, that we are saying in the very least, from the perspective of the United States, it appears, [there is] more of a desire to forget this than to acknowledge it. And yet we’re, in a sense, still at war, particularly with Koreans in the North. So, by saying we need to know this, we need to encourage public discussion about this, we are in a sense saying that we’re standing against whatever motivations there are for silencing this part of American history.

What do you want people, not just Korean Americans, to get from the film?

Ramsay: It’s important the armistice be faced as something that has stalemated a very important and very difficult conflict for over six decades now. We’re hoping that people, at the very least, will recognize that this is the case and also stand for peace. By that, we mean add their voices to policies here in the United States that will encourage an end to the war, resolving the armistice with a peace agreement, and on that basis, take a step forward to addressing the hostilities that are currently in front of us now with North Korea.

There are probably as many as a million Koreans in Korea and in the Korean diaspora, probably 100,000 here in the United States, that are living this legacy for 60 years with regard to being separated from mothers and fathers, cousins and brothers and sisters.  We do want that message to get out, and we hope it motivates people to stand for peace.

Deann: I think also … to encourage family members to talk to one another, community members, for neighbors to ask questions. This film is only four stories … and there are many, many more stories out there. Not just among Korean Americans but by Americans who were veterans and their families.  We had an interesting experience in L.A. There was an American veteran who had fought in the war who came to the “Still Present Past” exhibit, and his family also came—his wife and daughter—and the daughter expressed that her father, who had fought in the war, had never spoken about it either.  The silence about the war is not just among Korean Americans, but is [among] a wider audience, so to the extent that the film can spark dialogue.

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