Day 6

From Montreal to Pyongyang: A filmmaker's hopes for Korean families divided by war

Jason Lee recounts his experience reuniting his family on both sides of the Korean peninsula and shares his hopes in light of this week's summit between North and South Korea.

Jason Lee recounts his experience reuniting his family on both sides of the Korean peninsula.

Filmmaker Jason Lee (4th from left) and his father Young Tae Lee (4th from right) reunited with their North Korean relatives at a Pyongyang hotel lobby. (JSN Omnimedia)

When the Korean War broke out in 1950 and the demilitarized zone was established, thousands of families were separated and barred from seeing each other. To this day, many have still not been able to reconnect with their relatives on either side of the border.

But this week, some of those families saw a glimmer of hope for reunification. On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean president Moon Jae-In met in a historic summit in the demilitarized zone.

The pair shook hands and promised to develop a formal peace treaty that would end the Korean War. Many families are hopeful that this will make it possible for them to reunite with their loved ones.

Canadian-Korean filmmaker Jason Lee's father was among those separated from his relatives during the Korean War. Eventually, he was able to reconnect with his brother through written correspondence. But in 2007, the letters from Pyongyang stopped arriving.

In 2010, Lee and his father travelled to North Korea from Montreal in the hopes of reconnecting with them, an experience Lee documented in his 2014 film Letters from Pyongyang.

Jason joined Day 6 host Brent Bambury in studio to talk about the impact of the separation on his family, why the summit is important to him, and his hopes for reunification.     

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) shakes hands with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (R) at the Military Demarcation Line that divides their countries ahead of their summit on April 27, 2018. (KOREA SUMMIT PRESS POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

Brent Bambury: Those letters that arrived at your home in Canada, addressed to your father from North Korea — who were they from?

Jason Lee: So the letters from North Korea were from my uncle who had been separated from my father's family for over a quarter century, and one day my father reached out to a reconciliation committee in search of lost relatives. A few months later, he received the first letter. 

Do you remember what it was like for you to see these documents? You show them in the film — the North Korean stamps, the writing from Pyongyang. Do you remember what that was like for you as a child?

I never really thought much about it until I started going to school and understanding the complexities of the political situation of North and South Korea, or even the whole history of the war and the conflict. And I didn't really get into understanding that more in-depth until the letters stopped coming.

That's when I really started researching the whole history of what had happened in my own family, and the personal story of separation that I was trying to resolve and help reconcile for my father. 

Jason Lee and his father, Young Tae Lee, with a guide (left) and a translator (right). (Jason Lee)

Your father, who had been reunited through these letters with his lost brother, had this rupture in communication. How did your father deal with that? What did he think had happened?

At that stage, we knew that my uncle was quite elderly. He was in his 80s, so there was this suspicion that he may have passed away, but there was no clarity as to what exactly happened, given that there was very little contact and communication.

So that's when I started researching ways for us to at least attempt to travel to North Korea and find out in person. 

Those plans were underway, and then you received word that your father's brother had died in fact. But you decided to go anyway. And once in North Korea, you met the descendants of your father's brothers. What was it like for your father to meet them?

I think it was a surreal experience, because we never thought that it was even possible to enter the country, let alone reconnect with our relatives in any capacity.

Filmmaker Jason Lee (right) and his father (left) stand on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). (Jason Lee)

Did you see a family resemblance?

Definitely. I could see my cousins' resemblance to my other uncles and aunts. It's weird in the sense that they're people you've never met in your life. I didn't really know much about them until I got there, and we had so little time with them during the week that we were there. 

But you live such a different experience than them. You grew up in Montreal, they grew up in this totalitarian regime. Is it even possible to imagine what their lives have been like?

No; I mean, I have very little information based on the letters of what their lives were like. The communications between my uncle and my father were mostly about their recollections and memories and hopes and dreams about their lives, specifically.

It's a tragic situation that is really a humanitarian issue at heart.- Jason Lee, filmmaker

So going to North Korea in person and having that opportunity to connect with my cousins directly, one on one, gave me a chance to get a better understanding of what their lives could be like. 

Mind you, we didn't go into their homes specifically. We weren't allowed. They came to visit us at the hotel; it's typical for reunions that they have between North and South Korean families.

But this is a sad story in some ways. When your father finally pays his respects to his brother's remains, he says "I was too late, brother." How do you deal with the emotional part of the fact that families have been separated, historically, for more than half a century?

(JSN Omnimedia)

You know, it's tragic and I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. It's a really tragic situation for many families and the fact that a lot of the individuals that have been separated are quite elderly. They don't have much time left to even consider the possibility of reuniting with their lost relatives.

I think that's often sidelined by the whole propagandistic nature of the media coverage of Kim Jong Un versus Donald Trump versus any other political battles that are being fought in the public arenas.

But at the end of the day, there are thousands of families that have still not heard from their loved ones and have not been afforded the opportunity to reconnect with them. 

There are thousands of families just like yours, waiting to find out if they'll be able to reconnect with relatives in the North. How closely do you think those families are watching what's happening right now?

I think they're watching quite closely, and I think it's important that these conversations begin, because for the longest time, there was a middle man sort of brokering potential peace negotiations or even conversations between the two nations.

I think it's really important that the events unfolding really offer that opportunity for hope and open the doors for further reunions between separated families. So everyone is watching it, hopeful that there is an optimistic outcome.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their meeting at the Peace House in Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas on Friday. (Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters)

In making your film, you were able to take your dad to North Korea and reunite with his family. How difficult was it to organize that and finally be granted permission to do it?

It was a pipe dream in the making. I had this vision that I needed to make this happen, because we received that one last letter. There was no communication, we didn't know what was going on. There was a lot of doubt.

The first time I reached out to a North Korean delegate, I was told that it wasn't going to be possible. But I stayed in touch with the DPRK mission to the United Nations, and eventually I was given permission — almost a year after going through any channel possible.

But obviously, once we got there, it was too late for my father in terms of reconnecting with his brother.

You're Canadian; a lot of this happened a long time ago. Why does it matter to you now whether the Koreas reconcile? 

Having invested so much of my personal energy in trying to make a reunion possible for my father, I understood the emotional pain and suffering that many of these families are going through. It's a tragic situation that is really a humanitarian issue at heart. 

It has a human scale to it.

Yes. Everyone should have the right to call up their relative or go and visit them at any given time they desire. And the fact that it's impossible for so many of these families to even see their brother's or sister's faces — it's a tragic situation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full interview with Jason Lee, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

To view Jason Lee's film, click here