US Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) (Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA)
House passes another win for divided Korean American families

But will the Senate take up the mantle and finally bring about reunions between North Koreans and their families in America?

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed the Divided Families Reunification Act (H.R. 826), a bipartisan bill that seeks to prioritize reunions of Korean Americans with their loved ones in North Korea. The measure passed under suspension of the rules by 415-0. The same bill passed 391-0 in the 116th Congress.  

The Divided Families Reunification Act advises the Secretary of State to consult with South Korean officials about including Korean American families in reunions with North Koreans, including via video, and tasks the Special Envoy on North Korea Human Rights Issues to consult with divided Korean American families and explore opportunities for reunions. It also requires the Secretary of State to submit a report to Congress outlining these consultations as part of reports required through the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

Most Americans do not know that the Korean War never formally ended. For thousands of Korean Americans with family members in North Korea, this status has real-life implications. The absence of a peace treaty has prevented the two countries from forging diplomatic ties and official channels of communication that are vital in international relations. The outcome: seven decades after the Korean War broke out, humanitarian activities such as family reunions remain tragically out of reach for Americans of Korean descent. 

South Koreans with family members in North Korea have had more success in this area, thanks to inter-Korean diplomacy. Twenty-one family reunions have been held between North and South Koreans since the armistice agreement that temporarily stopped the fighting. Time is of the essence. As Rep. Meng explained, “For Korean Americans…there is no pathway for such reunions, as they have not been permitted to participate in these inter-Korean family reunions. Many of these Americans are in their 70s through 90s, and time is of the essence to be reunited with their families.”

It is unclear whether H.R.826 will be enacted into law, despite the common-sense nature of the legislation. Senator Mazie Hirono will likely reintroduce the Senate companion bill, as she had done in the last Congress, though it will need support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to advance.  

The State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee’s appropriation bill for Fiscal Year 2022, which recently passed out of full committee, contains a provision calling on the Office of North Korean Human Rights to investigate the risks associated with third-party brokers who offer to locate and reunite divided families. The Senate appropriators should support this measure.

Rep. Meng’s bill also serves as a reminder that there is more at stake than simply the nuclear issue when it comes to North Korea. The U.S. government does not seem to be moved by these and other human costs to a policy that prioritizes pressure over political reconciliation with North Korea. As Esther Im and Paul Lee argued in The Diplomat, humanitarian issues such as Korean American divided families and POW/MIA recovery should not only be prioritized in U.S. talks with North Korea, but travel for the purposes of reuniting family members or bringing back remains should be exempt from sanctions and travel restrictions. 

The U.S. government has a responsibility to take care of its own people. It means making sure that its North Korea policy addresses the needs of American citizens for whom the Korean War is a daily reminder of lives torn apart.

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