On Monday, Yale for North Korean Human Rights (ThINK) screened the 2014 film “Divided Families,” a documentary about Korean-Americans separated from their families shortly after the Japanese occupation of Korea and directly before the Korean War.
Jason Ahn, the filmmaker and board chairman of Divided Families USA — a nonprofit whose mission is to reconnect families separated geographically by the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which divides North and South Korea — produced the film to raise awareness and pay tribute to the quickly disappearing generation of Koreans who have lost contact with family members living under North Korea’s authoritarian regime. Ahn, a physician and graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, had no prior experience in filmmaking before undertaking this project.
“My grandmother was a divided family member,” Ahn said. “It was her last wish to see her younger sister before she passed away. Unfortunately that did not happen. This was a motivation for me, but as I began to meet more and more divided family members their stories inspired me.”
Paul Lee ’18, the former president of ThINK and a core member of Divided Families USA, worked alongside other Korean-American leaders this weekend to promote the film at the Council of Korean Americans conference in Washington D.C. The team is currently pushing a bicameral congressional resolution called H.Con.Res.40, which would compel North Korea to allow Korean-Americans to visit and communicate with their family members.
Lee noted that his personal stake in the project stems from his grandparents. Both of his grandfathers lived in what is now North Korea prior to the war, Lee said, and lost contact with their family members as a result of the conflict.
“This is just the first step in getting the United States government to acknowledge that these reunions should be happening,” Lee said. “For a lot of these families, the members are not healthy enough to make the trip to North Korea and vice versa. To even hold a video call or receive a letter would be their dying wish.”
Divided Families USA is also working on two other bills that have yet to be voted on, Lee added.
The documentary has been screened at various college campuses, including Harvard University, the University of California, San Diego and Wellesley College. Ahn highlighted the importance of sharing the story with college students to encourage understanding of the struggles of past generations and advocacy for North Korean human rights.
“I hope that the students who watch the film will understand a small piece of their history and internalize the stories of those who came before us. I believe that will motivate students to recognize their duty and privilege to make positive change in the world,” Ahn said.
William Ge ’17, one of the audience members, said watching the narratives depicted in “Divided Families” was more powerful than listening to a lecture would be. He said while North Korea is a “buzzword” that often gets overlooked by Americans, the film offered a humanizing perspective that was ultimately more “emotionally salient” and “relatable.”
Lee added that most students and community members who attend ThINK events are not Korean, nor do they have ties to North or South Korea. He said while he does not want to impose any sense of responsibility upon Korean or Korean-American classmates, he does feel a personal obligation to inform others and remain cognizant of this issue.
ThINK is screening Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s documentary “People are the Sky” (2014) next month.