With Korea very much in the news, we turn to Sister Bernadine Wessel, ASC, who worked there from 1977 to 2013, teaching conversational English to children and adults; translating for migrant workers and encouraging them; and working with children.

By Sister Bernadine Wessel, ASC

We in the West are accustomed to hearing the terms North and South Korea, a division that occurred at the end of World War II.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Korea was under the control of Japan, which tried to make Korea and Koreans Japanese. Generations of Koreans had to learn the Japanese language and give their children Japanese names. Any person of influence had to cooperate with the Japanese.

Sister Bernadine during her extended ministry in South Korea

At the end of the war, the Allies did not know what to do with Korea. There was no Korean government to which to return the power of governance. Two groups, one in the United States and one in China, claimed to be the “government in exile,” but neither had a firm base within the country.

In addition, no one understood the desire of the Korean people. The Allies ultimately divided the Korean peninsula into two spheres of power: Russia, which had advanced from the north, controlled the northern part, and the Allied Command took the southern part.

Over time, differences of social ideologies solidified the separation. The Korean Conflict has only made this division more permanent.

But the Korean people yearn for unity. The political separation has divided families and meant that:

  • Young men who had gone to school in the North were unable to return.
  • Relatives who had fled South during the war were separated from those left behind.
  • For decades, many people had no way of knowing if family members were dead or alive. The little news from the North told of concentration camps and widespread famine that deeply saddened surviving relatives.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, a slight thawing of relations between the two governments paved the way for family reunions facilitated by the International Red Cross.

People on either side provided names of relatives and possible contacts, and in some cases, learned of the death of a loved one.

At these supervised reunions, hundreds of Koreans exchanged gifts, took photographs and said tearful good-byes, for perhaps the last time.

When leadership in North and South Korea changed, the opportunities for reunions ended.

Once, I was able to visit Panmunjom, a former village just north of the border between the two countries. On the return trip, I stopped at a train station with two exits to trains: one leading to Seoul and the other to Pyongyang, the two countries’ capitals.

The one to Seoul is lit and trains go back and forth. The one to Pyongyang is dark. Here is my poem about the real picture of division and hope.

                  Hope stands at Dalnia Station.

                  In front of war, death, division, distrust,

                     hope simply stands.

                  Anger, pain and darkness are confronted by

                     dreams of wide roads and shared life


                      Hope stands at Dalnia Station.