“The Waiting” by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

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Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s mother became separated from her sister back in 1950 and has not seen her since. Her mother is one of more than 130,000 people who have applied through the Red Cross to locate a missing sibling, child, or spouse left behind in North Korea. Stories of these separations are the subjects of Gendry-Kim’s new graphic novel, The Waiting, translated by Janet Hong. Hong also translated Gendry-Kim’s graphic novel Grass, which told about Korean girls and women who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese during WWII. The Waiting is just as informative—and distressing—as Grass

waiting4Although fiction, The Waiting is based on her mother’s story of losing her sister during the war, as well as interviews of other South Koreans. The story begins as middle-aged Jina moves thirty minutes from her mother. She wants to finally feel independent yet cannot help but worry about her mother. It’s not just that Jina’s mother is elderly and frail: she’s also been waiting patiently to hear back from the Red Cross with news about the son she was separated from during the family’s escape from Pyongyang during the early days of the war. When war broke out and people started to flee south, many families became separated in the crowds and never reunited. The black and white illustrations in the book are somber and show the chaos and desperation as people realized they couldn’t find their children, spouses, or parents as they fled south. They had no idea then that seventy years later they would still be trying to reunite with their lost family members.

As Gendry-Kim writes toward the back of the novel:

 

According to the South Korean Red Cross, in the thirty years leading up to 2018, 132,124 people had registered to meet their North Korean families. Of those, 75,234 have died and only 56,890 are still living, with more than 85 percent of whom are over the age of seventy.

 

The Waiting, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, Janet Hong (trans) (Drawn and Quarterly, November 2021)
The Waiting, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, Janet Hong (trans) (Drawn and Quarterly, November 2021)

Even when people remarried after becoming separated for years or decades, there was still always hope they would find their original spouses. And because many parents found themselves caring for their children alone after they reached the south, new marriages often took place so that these children would have both a mother and father. Some never remarried, though, and waited decades for a chance to see their family members again. Jina’s mother learns that a friend had recently been granted a reunion meeting with her sister in North Korea. This friend tells of other stories of families who saw their children, spouses, and siblings for the first time in decades.

 

A couple who’d been separated as newlyweds met again as an old man and old  woman. They were awkward with each other. The man had remarried in North Korea and started a new family, while the woman raised their son by herself in South Korea. She kept her resolve never to marry again by not cutting her hair.

 

As much as Korea was devastated during WWII, the country soon became engulfed in war again. The aftermath of the Korean War still affects families today. At a time when South Korea is trendy for its culture and cultural exports Gendry-Kim’s book serves as a reminder that darker stories continue to haunt many in the elderly population, as well as their descendants.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.