Chin­Kyll and Bo­Ok: Across the DMZ

Jul 10, 2015
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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

From PRX and NPR, welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Tin Man" episode. My name is Glynn Washington and today we're asking people with a missing piece to tell us what happened. And for our next story, we go back in Korean history, but start out at the dinner table. Mary Kim (ph) is eating dinner with her father, Chin-Kyll (ph) when he reveals a dark family secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARY KIM: When I was 12, as he was chewing into some roasted mackerel, suddenly his eyes began to well with tears. He said, my sister - this was her favorite kind of fish. He took a bite of mackerel and he said Bo-Ok (ph) - she disappeared when I was 14. I was stunned. Here was a ghost in our family. After he told me about her at dinner, he would include her during his very solemn and long Thanksgiving prayers - the sister that he - that he so loved. It wasn't until much later that I realized that the reason why he'd never told us about her before was that she was North Korean. Many decades ago, when Korea was still unified as one country, my grandfather couldn't afford to send both his eldest children to school and so chose his eldest born son. That meant that Bo-Ok was sent to teacher education program in a remote country village, and she was not satisfied with that at all because she was number one in her class. Instead, she chose to go north where education opportunities were freer at the time for women. And then the Korean War happened. My father never saw her again.

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KIM: Then in 2005, the Red Cross offered my father, Chin-Kyll, the chance to see his sister, Bo-Ok, for the first time in more than 55 years - not in person, but via webcam. They would set up a video-chat, like Skype, with North Korea on one side and South on the other.

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KIM: My father took his family members to a cramped hotel room in Seoul in South Korea. In the room was a video camera and a large screen. The family sat down and waited, making nervous conversation. He pulled out his letter. He spent months writing, organizing and preparing his six-page letter that recounted everything he ever wanted to say. I had no idea how she might appear. I expected to see a living skeleton because of North Korea's tendency to starve its own people.

CHIN-KYLL: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: The screen flickers and the connection establishes. And Bo-Ok's face and that of our northern relatives - we see them.

CHIN-KYLL: (Foreign language spoken).

BO-OK: (Foreign language spoken).

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) Sister, this is Chin-Kyll.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) Chin-Kyll, is that really you?

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) Yes.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) Good to see you. It's been so long.

KIM: Surprisingly, her cheeks were full. I noticed that she seemed to have a little bit of makeup on and had a lovely traditional garment on with silver beading, which must have been expensive - unusual.

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) In preparation to see you, I wrote you a letter. I will read it first.

KIM: And then he launches into one of his oldest memories of her.

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) I don't know if you remember, but one winter night we had a fight, so Dad punished you by making you stand outside in the freezing cold. I felt sorry for you. So I tried to go outside, but Mom and Dad wouldn't let me, so I told them I had to pee. I remember how we were freezing together in the cold. I feel sorry about that. After you went to North Korea, I didn't realize that when we lived together I never told you that I love you. That broke my heart (foreign language spoken).

KIM: He could barely speak. My father is not an emotional man. Until I was 18, he never told me that he loved me. On the southern side, of course, our shoulders were shaking. On the northern side, she was kind of - she was amused. It was a kind of a slightly mocking, as if look at what's become of you. That soft southern living - a traditional Korean man would never have said that. My dad noticed that, but kept on reading.

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) But even now, when I see high school students with ponytails in her hair, I am reminded of you. I find myself looking at those kids as if they were you. My memories are frozen at the time we last say goodbye.

KIM: When he spoke about searching for that ponytailed girl, I understood my father in a way I hadn't before. What it must have been like for him to have four daughters and why he so insisted that we all get the best education we could. He wanted to give me what his own family never gave her.

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) About 10 years after you left, I went to U.S. I took Mom and Dad with me and take care of them. But they keep on wanting me go back to Korea. Deep down inside they must have thought you'd escape North Korea and return home one day. Mom cry every night.

KIM: He reveals to her that he has four daughters and only daughter. She jokes, rich in daughters, and everyone laughs.

BO-OK: (Foreign language spoken).

(LAUGHTER)

KIM: And then she reveals that she herself has three daughters and two sons.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) But you need sons, not daughters. You need sons to protect the country and reunite Korea.

KIM: Soon my father's grand filibuster ended. Finally, his sister, Bo-Ok, was given a chance to speak.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) Well, younger brother, let me tell you about my life. I remember we were so dirt poor.

KIM: She spends the next only 15 minutes, to my father's hour and fifteen minutes, to recount what has occurred in the past 55 years for her.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) Then the Korean War broke out. The American [expletive] came to Korea and killed our soldiers in the streets. So I became a volunteer soldier and took care of...

KIM: She started speaking about how the American bombs fell and took her legs.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) I was so upset about that. Remember, I used to be fastest runner in school. But then our great leader said don't cry. The American [expletive] are the problem, not your leg.

KIM: Then she married a man, and then more bombs fell from the American side. And then he lost both his legs.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) But I made a family to him and gave birth five children. You wouldn't be able to imagine what it's like for cripples to raise a family. One time, I woke up to find my first son with a severe virus, almost about to die. But my husband and I couldn't run him to the hospital. So our neighbor carried our son on his back like a horse and ran him to the hospital during the middle of the night. When our great leaders heard about our sick son, they ran over to the hospital and told the doctors you need to help him survive. You need to help him. Once our nation is unified, he needs to take his parents back to their hometown. I was so moved. Such a good life in this socialist community wouldn't exist in a capitalist nation.

KIM: I couldn't tell if she was believing her own words. I looked to her eldest son and unlike his mother's plump cheeks, his cheeks were cliff-like hollows.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) I'm only alive today because our great leaders' love and support. I got everything in life I ever wanted.

KIM: The amount of swabbing and sweating that her eldest son was doing seemed to contradict her words.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) We don't have many years left now. All I want is to see our country unified.

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) Yes, I believe that they will be here soon.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) Yes, I do too, but we need to kick out the American [expletive]. We need to kick them...

KIM: He held his tongue and he listened to her.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) We can finally meet and live happily together.

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) Yeah.

KIM: She pauses for a moment, and my father clears his throat and suggests let's sing a song together.

BO-OK: (Through interpreter) Yes, what should we sing?

CHIN-KYLL: (Through interpreter) Do you know "We Are One?"

KIM: It's one of the many anthems blending both the national anthems of both Koreas.

CHIN-KYLL: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: Both North Korean and South Korean family members sang together in unison.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: My father, still full of tears, took up the words - our hope is for one country. We pray, even in dreams.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: The song began to come to its end. They were given a signal that their meeting was about to end. While they were singing, the screen darkened. My aunt's face disappears. It's been 10 years since that reunion. Thanksgivings are smaller now. My father's prayers are quieter now. His prayers are shorter. He prays for our family, but he never mentions her - no. I mention her. I ask him about whether or not she's still alive. He doesn't say. He lets a pause hang between us. He's very resigned that he will never see her again, that she is - that she is dead. It's me who hopes that - who still harbors hope that she's alive - Bo-Ok.

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WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to Mary Kim for sharing your father's story. Mary Kim is a poet, a writer and a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. We'll have a link to some of her work on our website, SNAPJUDGMENT.org. Special thanks as well, Tongnam and Mikyung Kim, for being the voice actors for Chin-Kyll and Bo-Ok. The original score for that piece was by Davey Kim. It was produced as well by Davey Kim.

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