When Kyui Bok Yoo fell in love with a young man and followed him to southern Korea in the early 1940s, she could not have dreamed that the Korean peninsula would soon be bitterly divided– or that she ‘d be cut off from her more youthful sibling forever.
” She went decades without seeing her, which was her dying dream,” stated Jason Ahn, 37, Yoo’s grandson, who today is an emergency clinic physician in Los Angeles and a fierce advocate for divided Korean households.
The Yoo story prevails. Brothers were separated from siblings, husbands from spouses, even mothers from their children as countless individuals got away North Korea in the years prior to Communist leaders closed the border for citizens amid a 1953 stalemate to the Korean War.
And, for 68 years, most refugees who ran away North Korea have had no other way to discover if individuals they left behind are still alive, let alone visit or communicate with them. North Koreans typically can’t leave the nation and they have no or restricted internet access. Even letters are reviewed and often interceded, particularly if they’re coming to or from the United States, where Yoo ultimately ended up.
” This isn’t just a Korean story,” Ahn said. “It’s an American story.”
A bill presented this month and backed by a bipartisan group of Southern California legislators aims to change that story. It would require U.S. authorities for the very first time to focus on assisting Korean Americans– much of whom have actually been American people for decades– reunite with loved ones in North Korea.
Righting a historic incorrect
Under the Divided Families Reunification Act, the Secretary of State and the U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea Person Rights Issues would seek advice from South Korean officials, who have actually assisted in numerous in-person reunions in between family members divided on the Korean peninsula.
Federal authorities likewise would deal with the Korean American community to discover apart member of the family and arrange potential reunions, consisting of possible video chats. And they ‘d be required to routinely report back to Congress concerning development on connecting Korean Americans with relatives in North Korea.
” The South and North Korean governments have actually facilitated 21 reunions and 7 video reunions considering that they started implementing family reunions in 1985. Unfortunately, the estimated 100,000 Korean Americans with relative in North Korea have actually been neglected of this procedure entirely,” stated Rep. Young Kim, R-La Habra, who is an initial cosponsor of the costs.
Kim, who with two colleagues in November became the very first Korean American women in Congress, has actually been working on the problem of divided Korean households considering that she was an assistant in former Rep. Ed Royce’s workplace two decades ago. So a month into her first term, Kim eagerly signed on to this expense authored by Rep. Grace Meng, D-New York.
7 other California lawmakers joined Kim as initial cosponsors on the costs, consisting of Reps. Katie Porter, D-Irvine; Mark Takano, D-Riverside; Michelle Steel, R-Seal Beach; Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks; Judy Chu, D-Pasadena; Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles; and Scott Peters, D-San Diego.
Los Angeles and Orange counties have the very first and second largest populations of Korean Americans in the nation, so regional legislators state their constituents regularly raise this problem.
” I’m continuously speaking with households in my district about the urgent need to act and help reunify Korean Americans with their enjoyed ones in North Korea,” Porter stated. “It’s heartbreaking that a lot of them have actually been separated from their households for so long, and it’s a disaster that many Americans have died without seeing or hearing from their enjoyed ones in North Korea.”
Past resolutions have actually supported the concept of family reunions, however they didn’t have teeth.
In 2019, Meng introduced a nearly similar costs with the exact same name. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and former Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Yorba Linda, who lost reelection to Kim in November, were original cosponsors of that expense, which later drew assistance from Porter and others. That version passed your house, with a consentaneous vote in March 2020, but passed away in the Senate when the clock ran out while it sat at the committee level.
This year’s iteration of the costs, introduced earlier in the session, has actually quickly drawn more support. President Joe Biden also wrote an op-ed in a Korean language outlet before his election assuring to deal with the issue, as grassroots support for family reunions has actually spread out. So advocates are positive that the Divided Families Reunification Act will quickly become law.
” This is a nonpartisan problem and I’m pleased my coworkers in Congress agree,” Steel stated. “I hope these family members, some of whom have been separated from their loved ones for decades, have the opportunity to see each other once again prior to it’s too late.”
Time is running out
Time is of the essence.
The often-cited price quote of 100,000 Korean Americans who potentially have member of the family in North Korea is based upon 2000 Census figures. Offered the age of survivors, Paul Lee, president of the not-for-profit advocacy group President, Divided Families U.S.A., approximates there might now be simply a number of thousand North Korean refugees left in the United States.
That’s why his organization has actually started recording video messages from some of the 100 divided member of the family on their registry, so that if they’re unable to reunite with their relatives before they pass, activists can potentially still relay that message to the relative in North Korea.
Hyun Joon Lee, 92, recorded a video message from a medical facility bed in Virginia in 2019. Lee addressed his message to then-President Donald Trump, asking him to facilitate reunions so he might reconnect with the partner, child and 3 sisters he was required to leave behind when the Korean War broke out.
” Even animals get to be with their families, but I have actually been separated from my family for over 70 years,” Hyun Joon Lee said in Korean in the video, which has English subtitles. “My tears have dried but I still want to see my family.”
” How can I live with leaving my spouse and child in North Korea?” he asked. “I believe it’s God’s will that I reconcile with them before I pass away.”
Hyun Joon Lee died shortly after the video was recorded.
Hyun Joon Lee was among lots of young men and young boys who were sent out south as the Korean War broke out so they wouldn’t be forcibly conscripted into the North Korean army. That’s what took place to the earliest brother of Paul Lee’s grandfather, who is still looking for his bro today. And when Ahn took time off from medical school to make a documentary called Divided Households, he talked to two other guys who left alone, stating they anticipated to reunite with their households in months if not weeks.
Some North Koreans also left in fear of the violence that was breaking out, with stories of mothers losing their kids’s hands in the turmoil. Rich land owners left the north so the Communist federal government wouldn’t seize their home. Other people were taken as detainees of war or as political captives– some even years after the ceasefire.
That held true for Jong Hyun Do, 75, of Anaheim, in a story relayed by Chahee Lee Stanfield, who has relatives in North Korea and is a long-time supporter for reunification. Stanfield stated Do’s older bro was serving on a South Korean naval vessel in 1970 when he was kidnapped by North Korean forces, and he hasn’t been spoken with given that.
” Mr. Jong Hyun Do want to know whether his sibling Jong Mu Do is still alive or not,” Stanfield said. “If his sibling has passed away, he wishes to have the remains returned so that they can be buried beside his mom’s, in accordance with her last desire.”
South Korea has been dealing with North Korea since 1985 to set up reunification conferences between family members, with a windows registry of 10s of countless people who have family members throughout the border.
South Korea holds lottos to choose who gets to get involved each time. To date, 21 such conferences have actually been held, reuniting some 44,000 families. Each time, family members travel take a bus across the demilitarized zone to invest 2 or three days at a traveler resort in North Korea where they get to invest a few hours each day in supervised sees with the brother or sisters, moms and dads, partners and cousins they have not seen in decades.
The last such reunion took place in August 2018. Since then, North Korea apparently has hesitated to come back to the table.
South Korean Kim Kyung-ok, 74, 2nd from right, breaks down to feeling as she satisfies her North Korean brother Kim Ki Jun, left, and her North Korean sibling Kim Jung Ok, second from left, and an unknown North Korean relative for the very first time in years throughout a reunion conference in between South and North Korean relatives in North Korea on Wednesday, July 14, 2004. U.S. legislators hope a brand-new expense could assist result in comparable reunions for Korean Americans divided from North Korean loved ones. (AP Image/ KOREA SWIMMING POOL) ** KOREA OUT **.
North Korean Ri Keun Sook, 84, right, meets with her South Korean bro Hwang Bo-wonshik in their farewell after the Separated Family Reunion Fulfilling at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. U.S. lawmakers hope a new costs could help result in comparable reunions for Korean Americans divided from North Korean family members. (Korea Pool Photo by means of AP).
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North Korean Kang Ho Rye, 89, 2nd from left, consults with her North Korean sis Kang Hu-nam, 79, left, in their farewell after the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. U.S. legislators hope a brand-new bill might assist cause similar reunions for Korean Americans divided from North Korean loved ones. (Lee Su-kil/Korea Swimming Pool Photo via AP).
The situation has actually been much more difficult to navigate for divided member of the family in the United States, which doesn’t have official diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Sungkwan Jang with the Korean American Grassroots Conference said among the very first obstacles for the Biden administration will be designating a U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea Human Rights Issues. That position has been vacant since 2017, when previous president Donald Trump merged that function with another to conserve cash.
When the issue of household reunification has actually been raised in the past, Lee stated North Korea has actually used it in negotiations to relieve sanctions or make other political concessions.
” They insist on thinking of these senior divided households as more of a bargaining chip, which is actually harsh. But that’s sort of how it fits into their calculations.”.
Still, Ahn hopes the problem can become a way for the U.S. to positively engage with North Korea.
On the other hand, some North Korean refugees in the U.S. remain scared to promote on their own, Ahn kept in mind. Numerous still have Cold War-era worries of being mistrusted by fellow Americans, or they fear their relatives in North Korea will be maltreated due to the fact that they’re considered “defectors.” Ahn likewise stated reunification isn’t a topic that parents and grandparents easily discuss with children who’ve been born in the United States.
” The second generation, we’re sort of taught, do not fret about that type of things. Work hard, study hard, be successful and do not go through the discomfort we’ve needed to go through as immigrants in post-war Korea.”.
Some desperate Korean Americans have actually silently turned to brokers in China or Canada who use to organize reunions for fees that can overlook $90,000. In some cases these conferences work, Lee stated. Often, the brokers make a genuine effort but can’t locate the member of the family. Other times, these brokers are scammers who dupe susceptible elders.
Even the South Korean system for reunions isn’t ideal, Lee argues, because families have no way to interact after those conferences. That can result in mental health problems for the family members who relive the injury of separation all over once again.
Lee and many other supporters hope the Divided Families Reunification Act will open a door to more continual interaction in between divided member of the family, consisting of choices to arrange letter exchanges, phone calls and video chats along with in-person visits as COVID-19 eases.
Supporters for the expense also hope to see a rise of assistance from non-Korean Americans who, in the pandemic, will sympathize with others who have actually been separated from their loved ones.
” It’s only been a year,” Ahn stated. “Imagine that going on for your entire life.”