Long before I ever dreamed of traveling to Asia, let alone living there, I was a West Wing fan. Ok, perhaps I was a super-fan. I had my favorite characters and favorite episodes. I mean, how could you not like a show with Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Dulé Hill? It is quite possible that my watching this show during my “impressionable years” is the reason for my current addiction to politics and international affairs. So, thank you Aaron Sorkin?
Needless to say, I have watched all seven seasons more than a few times. Yet, even before Asia was on my mind, I distinctly remember being struck by an incredibly powerful episode, the relevance of which I did not understand at the time. During the fifth season there is an episode titled “Han,” in which White House staff members are faced with a visiting North Korean musician, who requests to defect to the United States. The request comes in the midst of secretive discussions with the North Korean government over nuclear weapons; a reference, of sorts, to the delicate nature of the Six Party talks which fell apart during the Bush Administration. After President Bartlet explains he cannot help in his defection, the young musician asks the president if he knows the Korean word “Han.” In explanation the pianist simply begins playing Chopin Prelude No. 4, a beautifully sad and dark piece.
The more time I spend in Korea, the more I am intrigued by the complicated nature of the relationship between the North and the South. Prior to moving here in 2007, I had assumed the Korean War was long over and that the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) was merely an outdated defense against an exaggerated enemy in the north. The longer I live here, however, the more I realize just how wrong I was. While I do not have any fear that the North will somehow invade my quiet little coastal town, there is definitely a sense of ongoing pain and turmoil amongst the South Korean people. What many in the West might not realize is that though an armistice was signed in 1953, the Korean War technically continues to this day, as no peace treaty was ever signed between the two countries. As a result, there remains tension, occasional outbreaks of violence, and a very solid D.M.Z. between the two countries.
What seems to weigh most on the Korean people, however, is the continued separation of families. Untold numbers of families were torn apart during the war. Some killed, some taken as prisoners of war, some simply landed on the wrong side of the border when all was said and done. The result of which has been six decades of separation with zero contact for most, and minimal contact at best for some. Many are not even sure if their husbands, wives, siblings or parents in the North are still alive. The secrecy and totalitarian nature of Kim Jong Il’s government has caused concern the world over as to the health and well-being of those living in North Korea.
Recent reunions have highlighted the concern that North Korea may even still be holding prisoners of war from 1953. Over the past few years, the Red Cross has been able to arrange reunions for some Korean families separated by the war. In all, 18 reunions have been arranged since 2000, with over 21,000 Koreans reunited with their families. As the two governments argue over terms of reunifications, time is of the essence for many elderly Koreans who simply wish to see their loved ones before they pass. It is difficult to watch as the simple desire to reunite with one’s family can be so seemingly impossible to fulfill.
At the end of the West Wing episode, President Josiah Bartlet explains what he has learned of the Korean word “Han.” A word which most Koreans believe cannot be understood unless one embodies it, as many Koreans do. Bartlet explains, "There is no literal English translation. It's a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there's hope." This illustrates beautifully the heart of the Korean people I have come to know. A people living in this peculiar place between great sadness for loved ones lost in war to the north and relentless hope for a future peaceful relationship between the two countries.Korean War, North Korea, Peace, South Korea