A week after over 200 constituents across the United States met with Members of Congress to advocate for peace and diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, the Divided Families Reunification Act, H.R.826 has passed in the House! The unresolved Korean War has left Korean-American families with relatives in the North separated for over 70 years. This bill is one step closer to healing and reconciliation for the Korean people.
Since the signing of the Korean War’s Armistice Agreement in 1953, up to 10 million Korean families have been displaced and divided. There has been little to no contact between Korean Americans and family members who remained in North Korea. But in 1985, North and South Korea agreed to reunify divided family members. Since then, 21 face-to-face reunions have taken place and approximately 24,500 Koreans had the opportunity to briefly visit their loved ones in the North.
Unfortunately, when the U.S. Geographic Travel Restriction (GTR) to North Korea was implemented in September 1, 2017 by the Department of State, these reunions stopped. As a result, the most recent reunion in August 2018 did not include any Korean-Americans.
According to the most recent U.S. census, more than 1,700,000 people living in the United States are from Korean descent. At the same time as time is rapidly passing by, the first generation of Korean Americans divided by the Korean War is rapidly diminishing. The war generation is advancing in age with more than 3,000 elderly South Koreans passing away each year having never reunited with their family members. Most Korean Americans with family members in the North have not seen or heard from their immediate family for more than 60 years.
It is for this reason that both Korean Americans and non-ethnic Korean Americans have gathered together this past week for a Virtual Peace Advocacy Week. The bill calls for the Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues of the Department of State to consult with South Korea and Korean Americans in working towards reuniting Korean families. However, the bill stops there. There are no additional authorizations of appropriations. The only requirement is for the Special Envoy to report on the description of consultations for family reunifications.
As a result, the bill has no power to implement any actual change unless the Geographic Travel Restriction (GTR) to North Korea is lifted. Currently, only selective life-saving humanitarian workers, reporters, and State-approved individuals are able to apply for Special Validation Passports to visit North Korea. Unless the Department of State makes an exemption for these family reunions, consultations alone will not make significant difference.
Family members need to be free to travel and visit their family members in North Korea. In addition, travel restrictions need to be lifted for much needed humanitarian engagement. Without the lifting of these restrictions, it will be impossible for humanitarian workers to timely respond to crises and save lives.
Currently North Korea is facing extreme depletion of resources due to years of isolation from global sanctions as well as COVID-19. Flooding and a lack of necessary fertilizer has made crop production even lower than previous years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that up to 60% of the population could be food insecure. Now more than ever before, humanitarian workers need to have freedom to travel in and out of North Korea, distribute and verify delivery of aid, as well as provide on-going medical intervention and treatment for the common North Korean people.
Therefore, even though the passing of H.R.826 is a one step in the positive direction, it falls far short from what needs to happen. The Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act (H.R.1504) needs to be passed as well as the GTR or travel ban to North Korea lifted. Now is the time to act. Join the advocacy campaign by contacting your state representatives, and let them know that you support H.R.1504- Enhancing Humanitarian Assistance Act!