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Peace in Korea is My Last Wish

There is no moving on for Korean families who remain divided.

Words: Joy Lee Gebhard
Pictures: Photos of Korea

My name is Joy Lee Powell Gebhard. I am almost 90 years old, and I was born in an ancient city near Pyongyang called Deokcheon in what is now considered North Korea. 

I am one of the millions of Koreans who became separated from their family during the Korean War. 

At the start of the Korean War, I was 16 years old, attending boarding school in Sariwon. Because the local train station had been bombed, I had to walk 75 miles to my home in Pyongyang. I walked for three nights and four days, sleeping in the woods and an empty farmhouse, avoiding train stations because US bombers were bombing all of them.

Eventually, I made it home. A friend of my father’s stopped by our house. He told my mother that Pyongyang was about to be bombed and that it was very unsafe for our family to stay. He asked my mother if she would allow me to go with him to Seoul, where he would send me to school. He promised to bring me back once the war ended. My mother had small children at the time and was unable to leave. So I left with Mr. Kim. 

“Write often, Seoul is cold,” my mother cautioned me, adding, “Keep warm, stay alive.” Somehow I just knew at that moment that I may never see my mother again. As we were leaving, I kept looking back again and again, until I couldn’t see her anymore. 

After the armistice was signed in 1953, the Korean Peninsula was permanently divided, so I could not go back to the North. In 1956, I came to the United States as a student. But I never gave up hope of seeing my mother and sisters again. I wrote letters, called, and emailed the embassies of Russia, Poland, and China to try and find them.

Every day, to this day, I still think about returning home, to the North. I still dream of seeing my mother again. 

Finally, in 1988, I received a letter from North Korea. All my sisters were alive. Later that year, I visited them in Pyongyang. It was wonderful to see them again, but unfortunately, my mother had already passed away. I visited North Korea many times before the US government banned Americans from traveling there in 2017. I have been saving boxes of donated milk bottles and children’s shoes to bring with me if I can ever return to North Korea.

In addition to the heartache I’ve experienced due to separation from my family, I have also had to deal with the psychological trauma of being surveilled, interrogated, detained, and threatened just for the pursuit of wanting to be reunited with my family. Just being a refugee from North Korea is my crime. This is also another hidden cost to millions of separated Korean families: The psychological warfare of being a divided people that cleaves our minds, hearts, bodies, and actual land.

But I realize that unless I speak out about this injustice, I am contributing to the silencing of other Koreans who are told not to rock the boat, let the past remain in the dustbin of history, and move on. But there is no moving on for Korean families who remain divided. 

Every day, to this day, I still think about returning home, to the North. I still dream of seeing my mother again. 

Time is running out for me. But members of Congress can help reunite remaining separated Korean families by supporting H.R.1369, the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, which calls for a binding peace agreement to end the war, as well as a review of the current ban on US citizens traveling to North Korea and exemptions for separated family members. 

I believe that we must end the Korean War so that families can be reunited and we can heal from the wounds of war.

We Never Said Goodbye

I cry in night as I see my mother in my dream
She welcomes me and says,
“So you are home
You have been away for so long” —
I cry in night in my dream
for I couldn’t reach my mother

As I awake,
it was just a dream
still I go home every night
though my home is beyond the 38 Parallel
I miss seeing my sisters and brother playing in the garden
and the ducklings swimming in the pond
I miss my mother — to whom
I never said goodbye

She said softly as I was leaving:
“write often,
Seoul is cold…
keep warm
stay alive”
She stood long by the gate watching me leaving
We never said goodbye
We never said goodbye

Correction 08/02: The piece has been updated at the request of the author. 

Joy Lee Gebhard

Joy Lee Gebhard was born in Deokcheon, North Korea, and grew up in Pyongyang. She attended Pusan University, South Korea, and holds a BA in political science from Wayland Baptist University.

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