Photos: In 1983, All of Korea Was Crying

On June 30, 1983, KBS launched a television special that would change Korean history. “Reuniting Separated Families” featured South Koreans who had lost family members during the upheaval of the Korean war. During the live broadcast, the family members would describe their lost sibling, child, or parent, and in some cases, even reunite with them for the first time in thirty years. Broadcasting for 138 days and nearly 453 hours, the program displayed information to an audience of millions and led to the reunion of 10,189 separated families.

Considering how long it had been since the end of the Korean War, some may wonder why it took a television program to reunite families. There are two reasons for the long period of separation. During the immediate postwar decades, the government had been trying to focus solely on economic recovery. Due to political and economic instability, reuniting displaced families was not given a high priority. The decision to start a live broadcast special in order to reunite displaced families only occurred to KBS in 1983 because producers began to hear about the tragedy during research for a separate television show. The second reason for the delay in reuniting families was the low level of television ownership among Korean households, something which had changed by the early 1980s. By the end of the broadcast in November of 1983, 78% of all Korean television viewers were tuning in to see the live reunions, the highest ratings for any single show in Korean history.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics and “Reuniting Separated Families” were two of the most important events in South Korea during the 1980s. The television show directly lead to the launching of “Reunions of Separated Families for Sakhalin-Koreans” in the 1990s. In addition, there are unmistakable similarities between the South Korean reunions and the more recent highly publicized North-South Korean family reunions.

Between 1997 and 2007, the KBS morning talk show Achim Madang included a regular segment called, “I miss them”(그 사람이 보고싶다)”, which was also devoted to reuniting family members. Most applicants for the segment had lost their family after the Korean War and a large portion of them were Korean adoptees who grew up overseas. Since 2012, the program changed the title of the segment to “I am looking for them(생방송 사람을 찾습니다)” and split it off as a separate program.

A scene from the KBS program, "I miss them" [click image for link to video]

A scene from the KBS program, “I miss them” [click image for link to video]

KoreaBANG has received permission to publish the following ten photos related to “Reuniting Separated Families” taken by well-known photographer Jo Rim-hwan in 1983. Although the photos are not from inside the television studio, they show the area nearby in front of the National Assembly Building. During the broadcast, thousands of people brought posters and signs to the front of the National Assembly, where television cameras would pass by and give them a chance at a nationwide audience.

Mr. Jo included the following letter with his photos:

I appreciate you having a sincere interest in my photos about the separated families. Thirty years ago, in 1983, I took photos at the site and selected 120 of them for my personal exhibition. Upon request from KBS, thirty of them were released to the public.

People sit in the street and watch the broadcast. One of them has a sign on his back with the name of a lost family member.

People sit in the street and watch the broadcast. One of them has a sign on his back with the name of a lost family member.

A man looks for his separated family members, including his father, mother, brother and two sisters from Hwanghae-do, North Korea.

A man looks for his separated family members, including his father, mother, brother and two sisters from Hwanghae-do, North Korea.

A woman and child sit on the stairs by the National Assembly building, holding signs with the names and descriptions of family members.

A woman and child sit on the stairs by the National Assembly building holding signs with the names and descriptions of family members.

On the steps of the National Assembly building, a man holds a sign describing his lost family members.

On the steps of the National Assembly building, a man holds a sign describing his lost family members.

Stringing a banner with the names and descriptions of lost family members.

Stringing a banner with the names and descriptions of lost family members.

A man searching for his eldest sister and father holds a sign with their description: The father had lived in Seoul, his second sister had lived in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do. His grandmother was blind and died in Gunsan. After the day of liberation on August 15th, they lost touch with their sister and father.

A man searching for his eldest sister and father holds a sign with their description: The father had lived in Seoul, his second sister had lived in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do. His grandmother was blind and died in Gunsan. After the day of liberation on August 15th, they lost touch with their sister and father.

Searching for family, people hung thousands of posters on walls and on the ground to make them visible.

Searching for family, people hung thousands of posters on walls and on the ground to make them visible.

Korea-family-reunion-show-1983

Korea-family-reunion-show-1983-5

More historic photos from Mr. Jo can be found here at his website.

Comments from Naver:

arabika (hyuk****):

A tragedy of a divided country.

rabbitson (tobe****):

I feel a sense of desperation that defies description. Despite enduring a deep sorrow in their hearts, they live as best they can.

mg5768 (ming****):

At that time, it was really incredible.. The concrete in Yeouido Park cracked under the weight of all the people coming in, even from foreign reporters in a great frenzy to get the story..

도둑괭이 (hong****):

I was searching for this story after I heard it from my father.. It made me cry.. I didn’t know that Korea has national tragedy and deep sorrow like that. I feel ashamed when I think of how easy my life is and how comfortable I am.. I think it is impossible to define Korea without a sense of deep sorrow.

달곰 (ibae****) :

I still remember seeing one scene with two sisters.. The older sister was waiting for her sister in front of the KBS main hall. Her sister was coming in a taxi. When it arrived, the younger sister didn’t even wait for the car to stop before getting out and running to embrace her big sister. They wept so hard..

(wndb****):

It was so heartbreaking.. I can’t imagine how they could live apart and endure this sad situation… so sad it was..

(dong****):

Just looking at a single photo made me cry…

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  • lonetrey / Dan

    Dang, something of this magnitude, helping people reconnect in a time without conveniences such as Facebook. (I was going to say “the internet”, but I Googled first and apparently they did have rudimentary internet! But nothing remotely close to today’s.)

    It overall feels like an epic story where thousands upon thousands of people search for each other. The pictures from the past are pretty interesting, makes me wonder what it felt like to be an observer during those times.

    • 60’s mom

      This all happened in my freshman year in college. I still cry uncontrollably when I think of stories I watched and some of most amazing songs I heard during the program. It made Korean War real for whole country again. Not a story out of a book.

  • k.ftw

    Mr. Jo photos are very powerful and tells so much, somehow it takes you straight to the scene. Thanks for sharing!

  • commander

    The positing is made in a timely fasion as many aged people, torn apart by the Korean War about 60 years ago, are separately living in two Korea missing for their families when the recent inter Korean talks over their reunions fell through.

    A considerable portion of the younger generation is skeptical of whether two Koreas should be reunified peacefully as they fear reunification would bring enormous economic burden to the prospering South. (The most visible empirical example they, alongside ultra right wingers, is sever economic recession after German reunification from western German economic assisstance to its eastern counterpart)

    In addition to geopolitical rationales for a reunified Korea such as the peninsular’s growth as a key player that would be able to fend off destructive ripple effects from intensifying rivalry between Washing and Beijing or defuse growing enmity between Bejing and Tokyo, there are ample down to earth grounds for the necessity for two Koreas.

    The permanent reuions of separated families is one of the reasons. With fading collective memories of the fratricidal war, the pain separated families are suffering is being forgetton.

    Despite the impossibility of immediate reunification, the expanded humanitarian exchanges should kept alive and such a task falls on the prevailing South who needs to tame the North’s nuclear ambition and draw a reluctant Pyongyang into the outside world with with a various combination of carrots and sticks that should be flexibly employed according to changes in circumatances.

    To that end, building a bipartisan consensus on the nation’s North Korea policy should be a top priority to pave the way for the remaining separated families to meet again amid broadly enhanced inter Korean cooperation. But it appears impossible to hammer out such a policy foundation given the wasteful political wrangling over a former president’s alleged remarks on the western maritime border that is accused of being favorable to Pyongyang by the ruling party.

  • commander

    The reunion campaign on a TV broadcast started lately becasue, besides the narrow focus on economic development and lowe TV penetration, controntational competition between two Korea strifled any humanitarian issues, and separates families that fled to South Korea during the Korean War thouht finding their families is a personal matter.

    In 1980, when army general Chun Doo hwan took power in a military coup when confusion and shock gripped the nation in the wake of genenral-turned-president Park Chung-hyee, incumbent President Park Grun hyee’s father,was shot to death by hight-hand intelligence chief at a posh bar.

    Since Mr. Chun took the helm of the nation, it had been clear Seoul was prevailing over Pyongyang in economic wealth. Globally, the 1980s is a decade emerging from the preceding decade’s economic downturn from soaring oil prices and declining economic power of the US plagued by the Vietnam war.

    The pride and stability Koreans savored during the 1980s paved the way for the mood of the day: identifying who we are. Almost all Koreans felt comfort while watching the TV broadcast where fellow citizens were emotionally yearned for their families they thought were living in thr North.

    The broadcast provided the nation with great relief from continued confrontation with Pyongyang and domestic political upheavals.

    Now, 30 years later, when military tension with the North still high and economic outlook opaque, and political bickering raging on, the nation might need a moment of collective emotional relaxation again.

  • Zoe

    Oh my god that video is heartbreaking. There is just so much raw emotion there

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