The Goal to Unite Korea and Reunite Families in Doc World's 'Crossings'

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD

Filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem’s latest film finds women walking for peace on the Korean peninsula.

On July 27, 1953, United Nations Command and North Korean and Chinese forces signed the Korean Armistice Agreement, putting an end to combat on the Korean peninsula. But the armistice stopped short of an official peace treaty, the lack of which has left North and South Korea in a perpetual state of conflict for 70 years.

In Crossings, a film by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem, a group of 30 women peacemakers from around the globe organize a walk across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to call attention to the never-ending war that continues to separate families and further tensions between nations.

Led by founder and executive director Christine Ahn, we witness Women Cross DMZ navigate one diplomatic obstacle after another to reach their goal of walking from the North to the South.  The cohort – made up of prolific women activists including Gloria Steinem, Abigail Disney and Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee – is unwavering in their mission to reach peace and reunification on the peninsula.

Doc World host Andia Winslow sat down with Liem, Ahn and Aiyoung Choi, Chair of the Board of Directors of Women Cross DMZ, to talk about the film, the impact of the Korean War and their 2015 walk. Liem, who was born in South Korea and adopted by an American family at 8 years old, shared how her personal story led to her desire to unpack the nuance behind the war and how it has shaped today’s U.S.-Korea relations.

“Because of the trauma of being separated from my original family, I developed amnesia about Korea and forgot everything – the language, my name. It wasn't until years later that I started to have recollections of my family and was eventually reunited with them,” she shared. “I learned that my separation from my original family in Korea occurred in the context of war and national division, and that my desire as a young person to search for and meet my Korean family mirrored the ardent desire of millions of Korean family members who've been divided because of the unended war and DMZ.”

While including necessary historical context of the Korean War, Liem goes a step further in Crossings by centering the lived experiences of all Korean people to foster a better understanding of the lasting effects of the war.

“This war is often referred to as the Forgotten War…[but] the people who lived through it have not forgotten,” Liem said. “That goes to the heart of the existing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. My work is about narrative change and shifting this dominant narrative of the war.”

In the film, Ahn speaks of the organization’s three-prong mission: 1) to officially end the war with a peace treaty; 2) to reunite families; and 3) to uplift women in leadership. But to start, Women Cross DMZ’s aim is to increase awareness and offer a new perspective of the Korean War and its aftermath.

“If you don't understand that the war has never officially ended, then you'll never figure out the path to bring a formal closure to it. This is the longest-standing U.S. conflict; most Americans have no idea that this war is still going on, that the United States divided the peninsula,” Ahn said.

In organizing, Ahn wanted Americans to especially understand how the Korean War had global connections: “I wanted [to include] not just American women, but also women from countries that participated in the war – [more than 20] countries participated in the war, many on the UN Command side. I wanted a collective sense of responsibility, that it wasn't just a war between North and South Korea, but that it is an international conflict and we all have a responsibility to help bring closure,” she explained.

But for Women Cross DMZ, the walk was about more than the formality of a peace treaty; they hoped to broaden perspectives of the Korean people, their histories, grievances and humanity. “What we're trying to do is center the experiences of millions of divided families and the people of North Korea who are still impacted by this unresolved war,” Ahn said.

As such, the journey of Women Cross DMZ allowed Liem the opportunity to show audiences a side of Korea that isn’t often presented in mainstream media. “It's very rare for Americans to hear anything about the war from the North Korean perspective. And North Korea was completely flattened during the war. Hearing the testimonies of the women survivors of the Korean War in North Korea – people who lost fathers, mothers, siblings – was really poignant,” said Liem. “Their testimonies put a human face on the impact of this war; it humanized this experience [of a] war that can be very abstract, [so] to hear it from a group of people that are considered the enemy really started to shift people's perspectives.”

As seen in the film, a recurring and unresolved injustice endured by the Korean people is the separation of families on either side of the DMZ. When the peninsula was split in two on the arbitrarily-chosen 38th parallel, relatives were suddenly forced apart. Thousands of Koreans who survived the war have, to this day, been isolated from their family members.

Reunification remains a difficult bridge to cross. Persisting political strain results in the use of the Korean people as bargaining chips, the North and South held in diplomatic stalemates. But a high price has been paid over the last seven decades: It’s been five years since a reunion between North and South Korean family members, only permitted to happen for a short amount of time and with close monitoring, and of the just under 150,000 South Koreans who have applied to be reconnected with their families, nearly 70 percent have died. Now, with a travel ban in place, Korean Americans, too, are barred from visiting family in North Korea.

“There's very little time left for the at least two generations of Koreans who survived the war. It's getting really urgent. There are very few people left who are still eager to try to make it there, if possible, for reunions, but are physically ill or [too] old and weak to make the trip. They're beginning to give up,” said Choi, who was born in North Korea before her family migrated  during the country’s Japanese occupation.

“Those who are selected for reunions spend maybe 10-12 hours over two or three days with their families. And then, after saying goodbye, they have no hope of ever seeing them again,” Liem echoed. “This has repercussions over generations; this tragedy of not being able to see your family and also having to forsake them as the enemy.”

The hope is that by helping to bring about an official end to the war, the effect will be far-reaching. “We felt that as Americans and Koreans there was this big responsibility to do something to end the Korean War,” said Choi.

As of July 2023, a peace treaty has yet to be initiated. As Ahn and Women Cross DMZ continue their work, the aspiration is that Liem’s film creates a newfound awareness of the state of Korea while encouraging activism at the grassroots level everywhere.

“It's not just about bringing an end to this war – it's about healing and reconciliation. [Crossings] shows that when we organize, we can actually make change that not only impacts millions of Korean people's lives, but impacts our well-being here in the United States,” Ahn said. “This film is a real gift, not just for peace on the Korean Peninsula, but for Americans to understand the legacy of our country in a place like Korea. It is time to change U.S. policy, and I hope that this film can really open American people's eyes to what we can do now.”

Watch the full interview now on YouTube.

Discuss and engage with us on Facebook, InstagramTwitter and TikTok by using the hashtag #CrossingsDoc and tagging us @worldchannel. Subscribe to our newsletter and YouTube for more features including events and interviews.

Enjoy our content? Consider donating to keep important storytelling like this going, and find more on PBS Passport.

Related Content

Her Stories

Even during difficult times, women – mothers, daughters, sisters and more – persevere, continuing to make it their life's mission to open doors for the generations to come. During Women's History Month in March, WORLD shares the stories of women and girls who have defied social norms for the opportunity at equality.

Human Rights

In an effort to bridge gaps of inequality, explore films and features documenting stories of human rights, from modern slavery to personal freedoms.