“The generation that experienced the Korean War is dying, and with them, the painful memories are disappearing too. The current generation has little interest in the reunification of the two Koreas. They dismiss the pain of separated families, since for them the Korean War is too far in the past. Will South and North Korea continue to remain severed like this, with virtually no contact between their people?” – Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
These words from Gendry-Kim’s personal message at the end of her graphic novel The Waiting encapsulates why she wanted to create this fictional narrative based on the stories of her mother, who had escaped the North during the war, and that of two other people Gendry-Kim had interviewed who had been briefly reunited with their families during the Inter-Korean Family Reunions organized by the two Koreas. Previously, Gendry-Kim had received accolades for Grass, a graphic novel that had focused on the life of a Korean woman who had been abducted at the age of 15 to serve as a comfort woman during World War II.
Her follow-up, The Waiting, deals with another Korean tragedy: the separation of families living in the northern part of the peninsula during the frantic migration down south that had ensued with the outbreak of war.
The story presents a fictionalized version of Gendry-Kim learning about her mother’s past. Her mother had gotten separated from her husband and young son when she briefly stepped off the main path during the chaotic frenzy of the migration to breastfeed their baby daughter. Her husband assured her that they would be waiting for her, but when she returned, they had inexplicably disappeared. Though she spends a few days waiting and looking for them at the nearest town, she is forced to escape by jumping on a cargo train with her daughter when army forces reach them. Her mother remains hopeful throughout her life of finding her family (her son in particular) even after she remarries, and in her dying age, hopes that she will be one of the few people chosen by the Red Cross to be reunited with her family.
Readers also get to see the flip side of the story of someone who is fortunate enough to be briefly reunited with a family member: Her mother’s friend got to meet her younger sister after 68 years during the 21st Inter-Korean Family Reunions in 2018.
Like Grass, the illustrations in The Waiting are what some people might consider crude and basic—done with black ink and brush strokes and not drawn and painted with fine lines and perfect tints of color—but this has the effect of simultaneously enhancing the poignant beauty of the Korean landscape while emphasizing the poverty or the bleakness of the situation as people try to escape and avoid death. Unlike Grass, which may be a hard story to read for some, The Waiting emphasizes the bond that exists between family that stretches through time. Despite the sadness and sense of loss present in many parts of the story, the book ends with a sense of hope and a desire for resolution and peace.
In the end, Gendry-Kim reminds her readers that the pain of the Korean War is still present in modern society and that a resolution to the conflict must happen within these people’s lifetime.