In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) reintroduced this bill from the 116th Congress to help Korean-American families reunite with loved ones in North Korea:
“In the last Congress, I worked with the Korean American community to pass the Divided Families Reunification Act. It passed the House of Representatives but the Senate failed to act. I am proud to once again introduce this humane and commonsense legislation, and to partner this time with Congressman Van Taylor. There are nearly two million people of Korean descent in the U.S including many in my district in Queens, New York. I have had the honor to meet some of the divided Korean American family members, and it breaks my heart that their chance of a reunion with their loved ones grows less likely each day. Many of them are in their 70s-90s, and time is of the essence to be reunited with their families. We have the technology and resources to make this happen – we just need the leadership to see this through. I thank my colleagues for their support and I look forward to the Divided Families Reunification Act becoming law this year.”
When she introduced this legislation to require the Secretary of State and U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea Human Rights Issues to prioritize helping divided Korean-American families reunite with family members in North Korea in the previous session of Congress, Rep. Meng said:
“There are so many American families who desperately want to reunite with their loved ones in North Korea and my bill would go a long way towards making that happen. These families have tragically been separated since the Korean War and that separation has been long and painful. These families deserve to see their loved ones again. Americans who have relatives in North Korea are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Time is not on their side which is why we must immediately pass my bill to provide much needed relief for these divided families.”
After this bill’s unanimous passage by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the 116th Congress, Rep. Meng said:
“The Korean War was a heart wrenching event that split the peninsula in two, forcing many families apart, and since then, family relations between both Koreas have been suspended in time,” said Meng. “My heart aches when I think of the thousands of Koreans who yearn to see and hold their loved ones in North Korea but can’t because of the vestiges of the Cold War. While South Koreans have been able to participate in limited family reunions, Korean Americans have not been privy to those opportunities. For these divided families, the so-called ‘Forgotten War’ cannot ever be forgotten. Helping Korean Americans—many who reside in Queens—reunite with their family members in North Korea is a top priority of mine, and my bill would help them finally see their loved ones. I want to thank House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Engel and House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation Chairman Sherman for their support and advancing through my bill. I am also grateful to the many Korean American advocacy groups who have championed this legislation. I look forward to passing this bill in the House of Representatives and seeing it enacted into law.”
In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, Rep. Meng secured provisions in Appropriations reports supporting the reunification of Korean-Americans and their families in North Korea.
Original cosponsor Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX) says:
“I'm proud to partner with Congresswoman Meng as we work to address this heartbreaking issue. While many Americans are fortunate enough to be able to sit around a table with relatives, recall shared memories, and embrace the ones we love, Korean American families across our country haven’t been able to communicate with family members living in North Korea for decades. I will continue advocating on behalf of the many Korean American families in North Texas who are longing for reunification until a resolution is reached."
In the 116th Congress, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who introduced companion legislation to this bill in the Senate on March 5, 2020, said:
“Reuniting Korean Americans who were separated from their loved ones in North Korea seven decades ago is an urgent moral imperative. This important legislation calls on the State Department to advocate for the inclusion of Korean Americans in reunions between divided families in North and South Korea. The reality is most divided family members are in their 80s and 90s so we must act swiftly to give these families the opportunity to reconnect.”
Senate cosponsor Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said:
“An enduring tragedy of the Korean War is the thousands of families whose ties, like the peninsula, were severed along the thirty-eighth parallel. Fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters awoke one day to the reality that they would likely never see or hear from their families again, all due to an impenetrable border and hostilities between the North and South. Given the changing dynamics in this bilateral relationship, I believe there is new hope for these family members to connect and possibly reunite, if even for a short time. I’m glad to join Senator Hirono in working to secure a clear process for these families, including many in Alaska, to finally connect with their long-lost loved ones after decades of separation.”
Divided Families USA supports this legislation. Its president, Paul Lee, says:
“During this time of isolation and separation for so many Americans during the pandemic, Representatives Meng’s and Taylor's initiative to reuniting elderly Korean-American divided families is especially timely and meaningful. This bill would be a historic milestone in providing closure for those who have endured the lasting pain of the Korean War for the past seven decades.”
Retired Ambassador Robert R. King, former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues at the Dept. of State from 2009 to 2017, supports this legislation:
“The inability of Korean-Americans to meet with their relatives who live in North Korea is heartless and cruel. Helping these divided families meet with their loved-ones again should be an element of our human rights efforts with North Korea.”
Olivia Enos, Senior Policy at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, and Yujin Kim, Asian Fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, expressed support for family reunification in a January 15, 2020 commentary piece:
“[H]osting family reunions might be a small issue where Washington and Pyongyang can make progress and maintain momentum in negotiations. Family reunions may also provide an opportunity for Seoul and Washington to work together. The South Korean government has years of experience hosting family reunions with North Korea and may be able to assist the U.S. as it considers a tenable process to start hosting family reunions. The reunification of ethnic-Korean families, especially those involving Americans, should be a priority for policymakers.”
This legislation passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by voice vote with the support of 26 bipartisan cosponsors, including 22 Democrats and four Republicans.
In the 116th Congress, this legislation passed the House by a unanimous (391-0) vote with the support of 44 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 38 Democrats and six Republicans, but did not receive a Senate vote. Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), had three Senate cosponsors, including two Democrats and one Republican.
Divided Families USA, Korean Americans in Action, Korean American Grassroots Conference, the Korean American Association of Greater New York, and numerous other Korean-American advocacy groups support this legislation.
Of Note: After the end of the Korean War in 1953, the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) was divided from the democratic Republic of Korea (South Korea) by the 38th parallel -- which separated millions of Koreans from their families. Since the end of the war, no exchanges of letters, telephone calls, or emails have been allowed between North and South Koreans.
North Korea and South Korea have established a reunion program where the divided families meet for a few hours on the border between the two countries. However, the frequency of the reunions has been subject to the political and militaristic tensions between the neighboring nations, and have been stopped and restarted several times since their creation.
The South Korean Ministry of Unification reports that 133,361 people are registered in the Divide Family Information System. This system classifies families into four groups:
- Opponents of the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, who originally found refuge in Manchuria and later made their way to Korea;
- Those separated while fleeing from the Korean War;
- Prisoners of war from the Korean War; and
- Abductees taken to North Korea both during and after the Korean War.
Since 1985, South Korea and North Korea have held 21 family reunions. However, there hasn’t been an official channel for Korean-Americans’ inclusion in these events.
Congress has been considering ways to reunite divided Korean families since 2007, when it founded the Congressional Commission on Divided Families to investigate this issue. Historically lack of political will at the executive branch level in both the U.S. and North Korea has stymied progress towards reuniting families. Recently, family reunions weren’t raised at either of the U.S.-North Korea summits in Singapore or Hanoi. In October 2019, working-level talks between U.S. and North Korean counterparts in Stockholm concluded without an agreement.
When the Voice of America asked about family reunions after the Singapore summit, the State Dept. reiterated a previous statement expressing its commitment to building a close relationship with North Korea for peace and prosperity.
For its part, North Korea has made a limited number of statements on family reunions: in August 2017, its Permanent Mission to the U.N. sent the Northern California Council on Korean Americans from North Korea a letter saying that it would actively support the association’s family reunion projects.
Payment for family reunification may be a stumbling block. If family reunions are broached as a topic during negotiations, it’s likely that Pyongyang will seek compensation in return for hosting families—this is an unreasonable demand that the U.S. is unlikely to meet.
Summary by Eric Revell and Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: Voice of America via Wikimedia / Public Domain)