Syracuse University Magazine

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Q & A: Teresa Yi '10

Reuniting Korean Families

Two years ago, Teresa Yi ’10 learned her grandmother had fled to South Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s, leaving her two younger sisters behind in North Korea. The separation, initially considered temporary, has lasted more than 60 years. Yi’s grandmother, who is in her 80s, still hopes to see her sisters someday.

While Yi, a Korean American, regrets she wasn’t aware sooner of this part of her family history (her late grandfather was also from a divided family), she was moved to take action and joined Divided Families USA (DFUSA), a national coalition that seeks to reunite Korean Americans with their North Korean relatives. According to DFUSA, an estimated 100,000 first-generation Korean Americans have immediate family members in North Korea. “Once I learned their history, I felt terrible for what they went through and wanted to help out,” says Yi, a Whitman School of Management alumna who is now the president of DFUSA. “Part of my involvement is personal, but the other part is keeping that history alive.”

Since the United States does not have official diplomatic relations with North Korea, scheduling a reunion would require assistance from South Korea, which has its own reunion program. But, Yi says, South Korea has an estimated 65,000 citizens who still seek reunions with relatives in the north, so assisting U.S. citizens is not a priority. As a result, DFUSA appeals to the American government for a solution and works to heighten awareness through community engagement and outreach, including a weekly newsletter that Yi oversees. Yi spoke about her experiences with Liu Jiang of Syracuse University Magazine from her home in Chicago, where she is also working on a master’s degree in school counseling from Roosevelt University.

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What motivated you to join the organization?
I like action. There are lots of sad things happening in the world, but I don’t like to just hear about them and not do anything. I always think there is something we can do.

How did your family history shape your values or cultural identification?
It made me more proud of the Korean part of my culture. I was born and raised in New Jersey, so I identified much more with American culture. Because of the divided family work, I’ve never been more proud to be Korean.

What would a reunion mean to divided family members?
Peace of mind. For those who are in the late years of life, all that matters is that all the people they care about are OK. It gives them relief of a burden.

Besides diplomacy, what’s the biggest challenge?
We have to build our support base and keep people engaged on our issue. Right now, we have 2,500 people who get our newsletter and we would like to grow that to about 10,000 people. Our challenge is getting people to care consistently. We want supporters from all races and ages.

What have you learned through your work with DFUSA?
The best lesson I’ve learned is that you have to have patience and understand that it’s not about putting a lot of effort into something and then it will come true. There are too many factors. The strategy is more about consistency and looking at the long-term vision of the U.S. facilitating reunions through a unified community voice.

What do you want to say to those still seeking opportunities to see their families?
Don’t lose hope. You have a young group of dedicated and committed people who really care about this and are making strides in a way that has never been attained before. Keep memories alive in your heart and head, and know that you’re not alone.