A blind spot for family reunions
On Oct. 27, government officials and civilian organization staff gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss North Korean human rights policy. It was right after the long-awaited reunions were held in Mount Kumgang, North Korea. When asked about the U.S. government’s position on the reunion of separated families living in the United States, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Robert King said that the relationship between the United States and North Korea is a difficult one.
A Korean government official attending the event also said that being included in the list of families to be reunited is like winning a lottery in Korea. But even that small chance is more than what most Korean-Americans with family in the North can hope for.
These families are in a blind spot, not getting attention from either the Korean or U.S. governments when it comes to reunions. According to the Ministry of Unification, there are more than 7,700 people over the age of 90 registered in the Integrated Information System for Separated Families. Currently, 100 people are selected randomly for each reunion event, and the chances of being chosen are one in 77 among those over the age of 90.
Most Korean-Americans are U.S. citizens, which means they have trouble registering in the system. They need a resident ID number to register online, but they don’t have one because they are not Korean nationals.
The U.S. government doesn’t seem to have any intention of pursuing family reunions for Korean-Americans since North Korea has detained Americans several times. Whenever Americans are detained in the North, the U.S. Department of State has asked U.S. citizens to refrain from traveling to North Korea.
Despite the realistic challenges, the separated families in the United States should not be neglected. That’s not desirable for humanitarian causes, and there is even the possibility of their desperation being exploited.
A Korean-American who had applied for the October reunion to the Ministry of Unification last month said that before he even confirmed he had been formally registered, someone offered to bring him to North Korea and arrange a meeting with his family there.
But he was not sure if it was an official visit, so he turned it down. “Unless the U.S. government gets itself involved in the process for us, we cannot go to North Korea without verifying who these people are,” he said.
Korean-Americans are desperate to meet their families and relatives in North Korea and learn about what their parents were like when they were alive. But Pyongyang could abuse their desperation as a propaganda tool.
While South Koreans are not allowed to visit the North without permission from the government, Koreans living overseas can find ways to get there. The Korean and U.S. authorities need to seek ways to address the plight of separated families with U.S. citizenship through under-the-table negotiations, if necessary.
The author is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 10, Page 34
by CHAE BYUNG-GUN