My name is Chahee Stanfield. I was born in 1940 in Manchuria. My family had fled from Korea in 1945, to escape the conditions of Japanese occupation during the Second World War.
I had three brothers, one of whom fought for China as a North Korean soldier in the Korean War, and another one who fought for the South Korean army. One of my brothers was separated from the rest of us forever. I never saw him again after the war.
In 1945, after World War II ended, my family moved back to Korea, hoping to reclaim their place in their homeland. Not long after, however, we moved to the U.S. in search of greater economic opportunity. What was left of my family went to Illinois, and I studied library science at Dominican University.
I revisited Manchuria in 1988, hoping to revisit my family. There, I saw so many like me – Koreans divided from their families, all hoping for a chance to meet up and reconcile any differences before it was too late for them.
All of my life, I had never understood Korean divided families, and I had no sympathy in my heart for them, even though I was just like them. It wasn’t until I went to Manchuria and I was able to put a human face – one that wasn’t mine – on the issue that I realized how important this was, and how much it meant.
Since that visit, I decided to devote my life to organize family members divided by the Korean War. I only found out after my father passed away that he had moved to North Korea and lived there for most of his life. It isn’t an experience I want anyone else to share.
If we started working on this situation twenty years ago, it may have been possible for most divided family members to reconnect with each other. As it is, it’s so difficult now. But we need to act on this issue, and more than that, I think, we need to work on the larger issues connected to the situation – awareness of the Korean War and reunification. If we don’t work on it, we’ll lose our identities as Korean Americans. I can’t imagine anything worse than that.