Korean descendants of Vietnamese king ripped apart for 70 years

By Trong Giap   June 20, 2018 | 05:02 pm PT
Korean descendants of Vietnamese king ripped apart for 70 years
Seated: Lee Sang-hyup (center), Lee Hoon (right) and their family. Photo courtesy of Lee Hoon
28th, 29th and 30th generations of King Ly Thai To have spent decades trying reunite with relatives in N.Korea.

"Grandmother! Mother! Soon Nyeo!"

These were Lee Young-taek’s tearful last words.

The 75-year-old man’s cry of anguish called out for his loved ones in North Korea as he took his last breaths in Incheon, South Korea.

It was late 1978.

Since leaving his hometown in North Korea a quarter of a century earlier, Lee had never had a chance to meet with his daughter Soon Nyeo. His mother had died earlier, and his grandmother was 80 when they bade each other goodbye.

Lee's sad story is not uncommon in Korea, South and North.

Technically, the two Koreas are still at war with each other, with the Korean War ending with a truce instead of a peace treaty.

Over the past three decades, more than half of 131,000 South Koreans registered as member of separated families died before getting to reunite with their relatives in North Korea, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing South Korean government data.

The 800-year Vietnam connection

The six family members at Lee's bedside in his last moments included his son Lee Sang-hyup and grandson Lee Hoon. The three men made up the 28th, 29th and 30th generation descendants of Vietnamese king Ly Thai To, the first king of the Ly Dynasty. 

In 1226, for fear of being purged when the Ly Dynasty fell to the Tran Dynasty, Ly Long Tuong, a sixth-generation descendant of Ly Thai To, went on a ship on the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam. His voyage took him to Hwasan in Hwanghae Province, in modern-day North Korea. Living in exile there, the Vietnamese prince allied with Goryo King in fighting the Mongolian aggression. He gained the king's trust and was appointed as the general of Hwasan.

Ly Long Tuong's descendants today live in both North and South Korea. In South Korea, the descendants are estimated at around 2,700 people. 

Three years after Vietnam and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1995, Lee Sang-hyup, head of the Hwasan Lee family, and other members came to Vietnam.

It was the first visit by the Korean branch of Vietnam's Ly Dynasty. Now, representatives of King Ly's descendants in South Korea return to Vietnam every year to celebrate their family’s foundation.  

70 years of separation

Lee Young-taek was born in 1903 in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. During the Korean War (1950 - 1953), hundreds of thousands of people took refuge in what is South Korea today.

A year after the war broke out, he secretly took his wife, his son Lee Sang-hyup and his youngest daughter for a walk of around 15 miles before stepping into an American boat. The trip took them one month as Lee Sang-hyup fell severely ill. 

The senior Lee had left his other daughter Soon Nye in his hometown to take care of his 80-year-old grandmother. Just like any other Korean refugee, Lee promised to return when the war was over. Little did he know that 65 years later, the war would not have ended.

The senior Lee never got a chance to reunite with his beloved daughter in North Korea. He did not even know what her destiny was back home. However, the mission to find Soon Nyeo has been kept alive for decades by succeeding generations.

Lee Sang-hyup sent his younger sister's information to a TV program in South Korea that focused on reuniting families separated by the war. He also registered with a family reunion program organized by the Red Cross. Both were in vain.

In 1992, hope was rekindled when South Korea and Vietnam established diplomatic relations. Lee Sang-hyup visited the Vietnamese embassy in Seoul to ask the government to contact North Korea for information about their relatives. No headway was made.

In desperation, Lee Sang-hyup and his father paid a mediator in China $6,500 to gather information from North Korea, because North Korean merchants were doing business in China. That much money could have bought the family a 100-square-meter house. However, this effort ended in vain, like previous ones.

Thinking back, Lee Sang-hyup has no regrets. "There's nothing to regret. Of course we need to find them, to establish whether they're alive or dead", the octogenarian told VnExpress.   

With his father aging, Lee Hoon has shouldered the family's mission for the last two decades.

"I've never met my aunt, but she's a family member, still in my heart. It's my responsibility to fulfill my father's wish to know what's happened to my aunt," he said.

The quest will continue

Coming to Vietnam for the first time in 2000, Lee Hoon visited the Do Temple, in Bac Ninh Province, where eight kings of the Ly Dynasty are worshipped. He prayed to his ancestors: "Please helped us reunite with separated family members."

Among 2,700 members of the Hwasan Lee clan in South Korea, around 1,200 are members of separated families, Lee Hoon said. 

In late April this year, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met for the first time at the Panjumon border, signaling prospects of an official end to the Korean war, Lee Hoon and Lee Sang-hyup were emotional, joyful, and hopeful.

The two leaders agreed to reorganize family reunions this August. "Kim Jong-un is a young leader, but that he has done such a great thing for two countries is amazing," Lee Hoon said. 

President Moon, also a son of a refugee from North Korea, had once said: "If Korea reunifies, the first thing I would do is to take my mother’s hand and visit her hometown."

Lee Hoon said that if people from two countries get a chance to visit each other, he would also take his father back to his hometown.

If his father is not alive then, he will still go to find his aunt, who'd be 80 if she was still alive. Lee Hoon is cautiously optimistic that this could happen in the next 7 - 10 years. Whatever it takes, and however long it takes, he will still find his aunt. "I’ve never felt I want to give up. I always tell myself to try my best to find her. If I can't do it anymore, my son will take over."

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