At a campaign rally in West Virginia over the weekend, Donald Trump alternated between bluster over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and starry-eyed musing over his surprising new relationship with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. “We fell in love,” Trump said. “No really. He wrote me beautiful letters. They were great letters. And then we fell in love.”
Trump’s declaring love for one of the world’s most notorious dictators is another first, but the idea of receiving magical and strange letters from North Korea is nothing new.
One of my memories growing up was of receiving letters from North Korea.
Both my father and mother are from what is now considered North Korea, my father from the capital city of Pyongyang, my mother from a smaller village further north called Pukchung. Although the North/South Korea split is easily accepted as a given by Americans, my parents grew up in a unified Korea. One that, also, didn’t split itself. The defeat of Japan by the Allies meant that Korea was freed from being its colony. But instead of allowing Korea to proceed as a sovereign nation, U.S. officials, after a half-hour’s pondering without even a map in the room, decided to split the peninsula roughly in half at the 38th Parallel, handing over control of the top half to appease Russia.
Stalin installed Kim Il Sung, the originator of the dynasty of dictators; Kim Jong Un is Kim Il Sung’s grandson. In South Korea, the U.S. military installed Syngman Rhee, the Princeton-educated strongman. This haphazard division placed 16 million Koreans in the American zone of “South” Korea and nine million in the Soviet zone of “North” Korea. The Korean War, which started only five years later, separated families further, especially with the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone, a buffer zone, 160 miles long and extending about one and a quarter miles from the Military Demarcation Line on each side. The city of Kaesong, for instance, was in South Korea from 1945 to 1950, but then ended up on the north side of the new Military Demarcation line and is in North Korea, even though it is below the 38th Parallel.
Today, we have families wrenched apart at the U.S. border with Mexico, itself also a line resulting from a U.S. war. Trump’s new infatuation with Kim Jong Un reminds us that more than half a century ago, another American-led partition resulted in something for which a new word had to be invented in the Korean language: i-san kajok, “separated and scattered families.”
The letters my father received were purportedly from his brother, who had remained in North Korea after the war. I remember that after they arrived, my father would often be moody and gloomy for days. American-born, I had little conception of what Korea, North or South, meant to me. My older brothers, who loved to play Risk, excitedly reveled in the mystery of how these letters found us in tiny Hibbing, Minnesota. Even more, the handwriting was unfamiliar, the voice in the letter strange enough that my brothers remember it today, paraphrasing: “Hi Dr. Lee, this is your … uh … brother. How are you??? Can you send some money?” Once, there was even a picture enclosed, but the picture was so blurry, it was impossible to discern if that really was his brother. If it indeed was, he, the younger brother, looked 20 years older than my father. The letters perennially asked for money—which my father sent, even though my mother didn’t want him to.
I wish these letters hadn’t become lost (we’ve never found them after my father’s death) because I was so young at the time I didn’t realize the weight of what those letters contained. In my childhood years, my parents preferred to never speak of Korea at all, no matter how much I badgered them or even used the excuse of a school project; both parents would say some version of “You were born in America—you are American.” Korea became for me an imaginary planet, and given the obvious discomfort from both parents whenever it was even mentioned, this planet orbited a disreputable past. I wanted to know about Korea so I could understand why we were so different from the blond Scandinavians in our town—like when a cat also raises a baby raccoon amidst its litter. Something so strange has to have a big story behind it. The kids (and some adults) called us Japs and Chinks, but even my parents never suggested we stand up and say, “No, Korean!”
“How’d your parents end up in northern Minnesota?” When I went to the East Coast for college, people seemed equally curious and startled by my background. I’d have to shrug and say, “I don’t know.” I knew my parents had come to America as Korean War refugees, and that’s about all. The best I’d ever gotten out of my father was the Korean proverb, “When whales fight, the shrimp gets hurt.” This didn’t quite jibe with the Horatio Alger/model minority story that had been fed to me my whole life, not necessarily from my parents but from admiring teachers and other adults. We were the American Dream.
My parents similarly had little conception of themselves as “North” or “South” Koreans. Koreans had always been People of the Han Kingdom. The White-Clad People. The Land of the Morning Calm. Not unlike the migrants of today, shortly after the partition, my mother as a teen was sent south by herself for safety, where she became permanently cut off from her immediate family; my father’s parents sent him to Seoul for his education and he was to some degree stuck there with onset of the Korean war. My mother’s cousin, still in their village in North Korea during some of the worst fighting, hopped a transport to the south at his mother’s behest to keep from being conscripted. He left promising he’d return in a week when the fighting in the area died down. He never did. You can multiply this story by hundreds of thousands of families who never asked the U.S. to split their country but have to live with its consequences, every day.
What is the result for the American-born daughter? I know my father’s mother’s name, Ahn Kyung-sook. But my mother says she can’t remember her mother’s name. I don’t know if she means she can’t or won’t. That it means something to her that she won’t share with me, or maybe a Pandora’s box so tightly sealed it should never be opened. It makes me think of all the family tree projects in school where my classmates had grandparents and great-grandparents. My tree had a single leaf.
My parents were “North Korean” not by political affiliation but by geography alone. They would have been happy to live on with their families in their homes; that they are immigrants has less to do with the pull of the U.S. than its rude push, the establishment of this line that made them refugees not once but twice. The line that has kept them from ever seeing their families.
That is why these letters, while almost silly to us kids in their fakeness, to my father were something else. It was the only tangible representation of his family that he had, whether its authorship was fake, or not.
When I was a Fulbright Fellow living in Seoul, my father had made the third trip trying to go back to North Korea with a medical group. Conceptually, I understood that he had to fly via China, not Seoul. But it seemed so odd to already be here, 35 miles away from the DMZ, while my father had flown from Minnesota all the way to China.
As the one non-white doctor in his entourage, and a Korean no less, for the third time he was mysteriously denied a visa even for charity medical work. The other doctors flew on to his hometown, Pyongyang. My father showed up at my apartment in Seoul much earlier than expected. He was completely dejected—drank a lot, insisted on going to tiny, out-of-the-way restaurants that served a specific kind of spicy noodle dish with sliced skate on top—North Korean style. He died at his own hand a few years hence, broken in many ways.
In 2009, despite the news of two journalists being detained in North Korea and the various missile tests, I jumped at the opportunity to accompany an academic group into that place that had been the background of the biggest mysteries of my childhood. Through some sleight of hand with our visas, I even managed to bring my elderly mother along. I hoped to finally get some more clues about this part of my background, especially through my mother’s eyes. But it turned out not to be possible. Pyongyang, like Seoul, had been bombed into oblivion during the Korean war and had been rebuilt in the grandiose Stalinist, not Korean, style. My mother, also, had grown up in a town further north and hadn’t ever been to Pyongyang until now; the college students in our group looked to her eagerly, expecting her to reminisce about “North Korea,” but there wasn’t anything to reminisce about. It would be as if the U.S. had been split into north and south along the Mason-Dixon Line and then people excitedly wanted to ask me what memories being “back” in the North, in Des Moines or maybe Toronto, were like.
Almost coquettishly, Trump keeps the contents of his letters from North Korea a secret. The letters to my father represented sorrow, hope, and, probably saddest of all, a willingness to suspend disbelief. When I was in high school, I recall my mother talking about how very distant relatives in China had passed on word that the brother in North Korea had passed on. Again, there was no way to confirm this. And not long after, yet another letter in that strange handwriting arrived, asking his dear brother for money to buy a TV. These letters continued coming for years. And yes, my father kept sending money into the void. My father did it for love. I’m not sure what this “love” for Kim Jong Un is that Trump is talking about. But he might want to consider, also, the ambiguities of where his letters might be coming from, who wrote them, and why.