"Ten Million Families": Statistic or Metaphor?

By Foley, James A. | Korean Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview
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"Ten Million Families": Statistic or Metaphor?


Foley, James A., Korean Studies


This article assesses the number of surviving first-generation divided family members in Korea. The estimates of scholars and government agencies of population movement in the two periods in which the majority of families are compared: the liberation period (August 15, 1945, to June 25, 1950) and the Korean War (June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953). In this way, an estimate is made of the number of surviving first-generation divided-family members and of the veracity of the oft-used concept of "ten million families." The article also examines another less frequently mentioned group of divided-family members: Japanese Koreans "repatriated" to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea between 1959 and 1984.

Since the first partial thaw in North-South Korean relations heralded by the Red Cross talks in 1971 and the subsequent signing by the governments of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) of the July 4th Joint Communique in 1972, the issue of Korea's divided families has been of key importance in the North-South Korean dialogue. To anyone concerned about this longstanding humanitarian problem, it has been encouraging to see that the Kim Dae-jung government has made consistent efforts, as art integral part of its "sunshine" policy, to try to persuade the DPRK to allow progress to be made toward a resolution of this the most painful and emotive of the many aspects of Korea's division.

The agreement reached on the principle of reuniting divided families at the June 15 summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il in P'yongyang marks a historic landmark in the divided families' long-held desire to be reunited. Both leaders agreed in principle that all Koreans should have the right "to live with their families wherever they choose in Korea." It is to be hoped that this agreement, unlike its predecessors, and the euphoria surrounding the perceived success of the summit will be translated into an effective and durable mechanism that will eventually solve the painful problem of Korea's divided families.

The welcome attention the summit and the subsequent limited reunions of divided family members have raised in the Korean and international press has again highlighted the fact that until relatively recently very little study has been made of the divided families issue either abroad or in Korea itself. In particular, a clear view of the size and scope of this problem must surely be a precondition for any attempt at formulating an effective proposal for its solution or for any assessment of the importance of Korea's divided families in the wider debate on Korean reunification.

The estimates most commonly quoted in the press for the total number of divided family members in Korea, North and South, range from 7.5 million to as high as 10 million. These estimates, however, are not supported by any believable demographic data. The search for more reliable demographic information is also further complicated by two factors. Since 1963 the DPRK has been extremely reluctant to issue any demographic data pertaining to the population of North Korea. This effectively means that no accurate appraisal of the size of the problem in the DPRK is possible. Estimation of the size of the problem in the ROK is also complicated by the fact that since 1970 information on the places of birth of those of North Korean origin now living in the ROK is listed in the ROK census under the heading kit'a (other) rather than providing a clear breakdown of the province/city/county of birth of the person in question. In order, therefore, to provide a more reliable estimate of the number of divided families, I will e xamine in this article the existing data relating to refugee movement in the two periods in Korea's modern history in which the vast majority of divided family members were separated from their relatives: the liberation period, from Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule on August 15, 1945, to the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, and the Korean War period, from the outbreak of the war to the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953.

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"Ten Million Families": Statistic or Metaphor?
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