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  • Korea's Divided Families: Fifty years of separation
  • Hyeon Ju Lee (bio)
Korea's Divided Families: Fifty years of separation, by James A. Foley. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. 224 pp. $170.00 cloth; $34.00 paper.

James Foley's Korea's Divided Families: Fifty Years of Separation recounts the "enduring" hardship that divided families have faced since the division of Korea in 1945 and the subsequent Korean War (1950–1953). The book takes a comprehensive look at the political and historical background of the division as well as the continually struggling attempts to reunify divided families.

As the author reiterates throughout the book, Korea's division has caused an uncountable number of individuals to suffer from emotional distress arising from their inability to communicate with their family members and from political injustice due to their association with their families on the other side of the 38th parallel. The story of people who had to live through politically charged times despite apolitical reasons for their separation is the main thesis of the book.

The merit of the book lies in the ethnographic details depicted in chapters 4 and 5, in which the author relates the day-to-day suffering and hardships the divided family members have had to endure not only under a repressive anti-communist regime, but also during the actual reunion meetings with long-lost families in 2000. In these chapters, the author tells the stories of the naive involvement of Koreans with political factions for apolitical reasons. For the people whose lives were disrupted, the ideologies that caused the outbreak of the war did not make sense nor did it make much difference which side they were on since they believed the war would be over soon enough. Most of the interviewees in the book did not anticipate the lifelong separation from their families and homes. What is more painful is, as Foley points out, the fact that the actual meetings with the lost families at the state-sponsored 2000 reunion did not remove the emotional wounds the war had left. Rather, the fact that the cold reality of the ideological contexts in which the meeting took place [End Page 157] prohibited actual reunion of families on a humanitarian level reveals the continuing suffering of the divided families.

Despite the author's intention to call attention to "Korea's most urgent and pressing humanitarian problems" (p. 1), the reading of it gets throttled with a long description of the history of ideological division dating back to turn of the twentieth century, extensive numerical accounts of migrating North and South Koreans from 1948 to 1953, and the history of unification talks between the North Korean and South Korean governments since the 1960s. The author points up the political divisions among leaders who have been entangled in Korea's volatile modern history since the end of the Choso .n period. Foley describes the cause of the political division into North and South Korea as the byproduct of historical contexts in early twentieth-century East Asia, where communist influence from the Soviet Union was getting a strong grip. Historical background makes up one third of the book, and Foley goes into a detailed discussion of political changes in the Korean peninsula that led to ideological division among the people even before the physical division of the peninsula into the democratic South and the communist North. Such detailed accounts of the number of border crossers and endless failed attempts to communicate between the governments of North and South Korea sometimes make for slow reading. However, such extensive historical data set the tone for the frustratingly unsuccessful attempts to reunite families who were separated by the conflict.

Although the book is filled with stories from the grim past, it is all the more valuable a source for understanding modern Korea due to its extensive historical accounts, which will be informative for students in Korean studies and initiates to Korean history and culture. Only a handful of books have been published on the issues regarding the life histories of those who have been affected directly by the division despite the fact that the division has lasted more than five decades. Publications in English...