The nomination of the U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea, along with new legislation, has revived hopes for Korean Americans who want to see family in North Korea whom they have not seen since their separation during the Korean War.
President Joe Biden nominated Julie Turner, a long-time State Department official, as the U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea on January 23. The position has been vacant for the past six years.
The Divided Families Reunification Act authorizes the special envoy to consult regularly 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 envoy is to create “potential opportunities” for reunions including video meetings.
“This bill is our last hope because most of the divided family members are in their late 80s and 90s, and probably this is our last chance for the reunion,” said Chahee Lee Stanfield, executive director of the National Coalition for the Divided Families (DFUSA).
Stanfield, 82, has not seen her father and brother in North Korea for more than 70 years. She began a grassroots effort in America in the mid-1990s to help Korean families living in the U.S. reunite with loved ones in North Korea.
“Every day counts for us, and we are hoping that the special envoy will 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 individuals from their families. The fighting ended in July 1953 with the signing of the Armistice Agreement ordering a temporary cease-fire and the division of the peninsula between North and South Korea.
Since their separation, families divided by the 38th parallel have been unable to travel to see each other due to the differences between the democratic Republic of Korea (ROK), as South Korea is known, and socialist North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
From 1985 to 2018, the governments of the North and South authorized 21 family reunion programs. These allowed more than 24,500 divided families in both countries to meet either in person in Seoul, Pyongyang and Mount Kumgang or virtually.
However people like Stanfield, who moved from South Korea to America and became U.S. citizens, were unable to participate in the programs because diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang do not exist.
There are more than 1.7 million people of Korean descent living 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 Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC).
“Unfortunately, there is no reported information of the exact number of divided families residing in the United States,” Song said. “There are no mechanisms in the United States that formally track these families, and no terms that clearly define who may be considered family either.”
California Republican Representative Young Kim, who cosponsored the bipartisan Reunification Act, is pushing for a system of identifying Korean Americans divided from their families in North Korea.
“I want the special envoy … to identify the Korean Americans, some 10,000 of those still living in the United States, to coordinate better with our U.S. State Department and the South Korean government to include them in the next round of family reunification,” said Kim during an interview with the VOA Korean Service this week.
The number is shrinking yearly due to deaths among the aging population who have now waited 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 lifetime of hoping
Even though inter-Korean family reunion programs were temporary and held under strict surveillance by North Korean officials, Korean Americans have long hoped that similar programs would unite them with their families in the North.
Some, like Song Yoonchae, a white-haired 90-year-old in Los Angeles, thought he would return home when he boarded the SS Meredith Victory. He thought he was taking a brief voyage to escape the ravages of the war.
He recalled leaving behind his sister and two brothers to board the U.S. merchant freighter turned rescue vessel docked at the port of Hungnam in North Korea in December 1950.
“My family and I were told we just need to stay on the ship for three days,” said Song, who was 17 years old at the time, in “The Three Days Is a Lifetime,” a documentary produced by the VOA Korean Service. It captures the wrenching stories of Korean Americans yearning to meet their families in the North.
The ship carried tens of thousands of densely packed refugees to Port Jangseungpo on Geoje Island off the southern tip of South Korea. The rescue operation became known as “the Miracle of Christmas” as the ship unloaded the refugees on Christmas Eve.
Displaced by the war, Yoonchae began a new life in the South before moving to the U.S.
“I consider the issue of bringing divided Korean American families together to be a human rights issue,” said Robert King, who served as the U.S. special envoy for North Korea’s human rights under the Obama administration. He was the last person to serve in the position.
“The first step will be to get North Korea to talk with the United States,” King continued.
An opening for dialog
Dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang has remained stalled since October 2019. Even though the Biden administration said efforts were made to engage in talks, North Korea has refused.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, “In the absence of any dialogue with North Korea, with tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula because of Pyongyang’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and with U.S.-DPRK and ROK-DPRK relations in a bad state, it is hard to imagine that there is any real prospect for progress in this important area.”
Revere continued, “Nevertheless, the existence of this legislation keeps open a potential area for U.S.-ROK-DPRK dialogue and cooperation if and when circumstances allow in the future.”
North Korea launched more than 90 ballistic and cruise missiles last year while dismissing any prospects for talks with the U.S.
Wonseok Song of the KAGC said, “While tensions do remain unfavorable between the two countries” of the U.S. and North Korea, “we at KAGC are hopeful” that talks focusing on reunions will open. He added, “The issue is dire to an aging population eager to make peace with their estranged loved ones.”
Joeun Lee contributed to this report.