The nomination of the US special envoy for human rights in North Korea, along with new legislation, has revived hope for Korean Americans who want to see family in North Korea that they have not seen since they were separated during the Korean War.
President Joe Biden named Julie Turner, a longtime State Department official, as the US special envoy for human rights in North Korea on January 23. The post has been vacant for the past six years.
The Separated Families Reunification Act authorizes the special envoy to regularly consult with Korean Americans to “make efforts to reunite them” with their families in North Korea.
The Reunification Act was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2023, which Biden signed into law on December 23. The delegate is to create “possible opportunities” for reunions including video meetings.
“This bill is our last hope because most of the family members who are separated are in their late 80s and 90s, and this is probably our last chance for reunification,” said Chahee Lee Stanfield, executive director the National Alliance for Divided Families (DFUSA).
Stanfield, 82, has not seen her father or brother in North Korea for more than 70 years. She started a grassroots effort in America in the mid-1990s to help Korean families living in the US reunite with relatives in North Korea.
“Every day counts for us, and we expect the special envoy to prioritize our issue and seek the reunion process including the video reunion as soon as possible,” Stanfield said.
No travel after war
The Korean War, which began in June 1950, separated more than 10 million people from their families. The fighting ended in July 1953 when the Armistice Agreement was signed which ordered a temporary ceasefire and the separation of the peninsula between North and South Korea.
Since their separation, families divided along the 38th parallel have been unable to travel to see each other because of differences between the democratic Republic of Korea (ROK), as South Korea is known, and socialist North Korea, the People’s Republic of Korea. Democratic Korea. (DPRK).
From 1985 to 2018, Northern and Southern governments authorized 21 family reunification programs. These allowed more than 24,500 families divided in the two countries to reunite in person in or near Seoul, Pyongyang and Mount Kumgang.
However, people like Stanfield, who moved from South Korea to America and became US citizens, were unable to participate in the programs because there are no diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang.
More than 1.7 million people of Korean descent live in the U.S. As many as 10,000 Korean Americans were separated from their families in North Korea during the war, according to Wonseok Song, executive director of the Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC).
“Unfortunately, there is no reported information on the exact number of split families living in the United States,” Song said. “There are no mechanisms in the United States that formally track these families, nor are there any terms that clearly define who might be considered a family.”
California Republican Representative Young Kim, who authored the bipartisan Reunification Act, is pushing for a system to identify Korean Americans separated from their families in North Korea.
“I am asking the special envoy… to identify the Korean Americans, approximately 10,000 of whom are still living in the United States, to better coordinate with our US State Department and the South Korean government to include them in the first another round of family reunification,” Kim said during an interview with the VOA Korea Service this week.
The number is decreasing every year due to deaths among the aging population who have now spent much of their lives to see their families in North Korea. About 3,000 elderly South Koreans with family ties to North Korea die each year, according to the Reunification Act.
A life of hope
Although inter-Korean family reunification programs have been temporary and kept under close watch by North Korean officials, Korean Americans have long hoped that similar programs would reunite them with their families in the North.
Some people, like Song Yoonchae, a 90-year-old white man in Los Angeles, thought he would return home when he boarded the SS Meredith Victory. He thought he was on a short journey to escape the ravages of war.
He recalled leaving his sister and two brothers behind to board the US cargo rescue ship docked at the port of Hungnam in North Korea in December 1950.
“My family and I were told that we only have to stay on the ship for three days,” Song, then 17, said in “The Three Days Is a Lifetime,” a documentary that VOA Korean service available. . It tells the harrowing stories of Korean Americans trying to meet their families in the North.
The ship carried thousands of tightly packed refugees to Jangseungpo Port on Geoje Island off the southern tip of South Korea. The rescue operation was called the “Miracle of Christmas” when the ship unloaded the refugees on Christmas Eve.
Displaced by the war, Yoonchae started a new life in the South before moving to the US
“I consider it a human rights issue to bring divided Korean-American families together,” said Robert King, who served as the US special envoy for North Korean human rights under the Obama administration. He was the last person in the position.
“The first step will be to get North Korea to talk to the United States,” King continued.
Open the dialog
Dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang has stalled since October 2019. Although the Biden administration has said efforts have been made to engage in talks, North Korea has refused.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive negotiating experience with North Korea, said, “In the absence of any dialogue with North Korea, tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula due to Pyongyang’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and with US-DPRK. and ROK-DPRK relations in a bad state, it is hard to imagine that there is any real prospect of progress in this important area.”
Revere continued, “Nevertheless, the existence of this legislation preserves a potential area for US-ROK-DPRK dialogue and cooperation if and when circumstances permit in the future.”
North Korea launched more than 90 ballistic and cruise missiles last year and has given no prospect of talks with the US
The KAGC’s Wonseok Song said, “Although the tension remains unfavorable between the two countries” of the US and North Korea, “we at the KAGC are hopeful” that talks will open that will lead to reunions. He added, “It’s a big issue for an aging population that wants to make peace with their alien relatives.”
Joeun Lee contributed to this report.