Divided Families and Korean Americans

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)



Nothing is more exemplary of the nature of the North Korean regime than its calculating, transactional approach to family reunions. Denying such reunions—and linking them to this or that benefit—is nothing short of cruel, particularly as the number of survivors steadily falls.

Back in 2012, we posted on a film that Jason Ahn and Eugene Chung produced on the American dimension of the divided families issue. The film screened at small festivals, and they later made the film available online here. Although most of the divided families are in Korea, there are around 1.7 million Korean Americans, and the film estimates there could be as many as 100,000 Korean Americans with family in the North.

In 2015, Representatives Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Ed Royce (R-CA) introduced H.Con.Res. 40 (see text here), a legislative effort to encourage the US government to press the North Korean government on the divided families issue. The resolution states that Congress encourages the DPRK government to permit Korean Americans to meet with their family members from North Korea. The resolution also calls upon North Korea to take “concrete steps to build goodwill that is conducive to peace on the Korean Peninsula. “

Indeed, efforts to promote Korean American meetings with divided North Korean family members have been injected into Congressional legislation in the past. Notably, in the North Korean Human Rights Act (2004) Congress mandates that nonhumanitarian assistance be contingent on North Korea’s progress toward Korean American-North Korean family reunions. For other previous examples of legislation and related efforts see Divided Families USA’s list here.

Sadly, it is unlikely that the North Koreans will take up this offer given the current state of diplomatic play. For North Korea, everything is connected with the broader political context and humanitarian issues are always transactional. But we should not mirror that approach, and should signal that humanitarian issues can operate on a separate track. It can certainly do little harm to make the offer to organize such reunions, and if it provides an opening in North Korea’s eyes, however limited, so much the better.

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