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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a bill on Wednesday that would put new pressure on the State Department to work with the South Korean government to allow Korean-American families to visit with relatives in North Korea.
The legislation argues that Korean-Americans who were separated from family members in the DPRK after the Korean War have been consistently excluded from past reunions — rare and often deeply emotional meetings, where elderly survivors of the war are allowed to embrace siblings and cousins they haven’t seen since childhood — and urges the State Department to change that going forward.
“Many Korean Americans with family members in North Korea have not seen or communicated with those family members in more than 60 years,” said Representative Karen Bass, a California Democrat, in remarks at the committee meeting.
“Their children have grown up here in America without knowing what their cousins, aunts, or uncles even look like.”
Bass was also the author of a separate resolution that passed out of the committee on Wednesday, which affirms that the family reunions should be a priority for the United States.
“The situation is now growing more urgent as many of those separated are getting older,” Bass said.
Greg Scarlatoiu, the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), told NK News that the inter-Korean family reunions are an important humanitarian and human rights issue for exactly that reason.
“It’s an issue that has an expiration date,” Scarlatoiu said. “You’re talking about senior citizens who are, unfortunately, not getting any younger.”
“With the passage of time, more and more of them have been leaving us, will be leaving us,” he said.
The most recent round of family reunions between the North and South, which took place during August 2018, included no Korean-Americans, according to the text of the bill.
According to the U.S. Census, nearly two million Americans are of Korean descent.
Representative Judy Chu, who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told NK News in an interview that the Korean-American community has approached her “numerous times” about the divided families issue.
“They have not been able to reunify,” she said. “And so their desire is to have these families reunited — to have them at least be able to see one another.”
The legislation, known as the Divided Families Reunification Act and authored by Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee without any votes against it and now awaits consideration by the full House of Representatives.
“I fully expect for this to have a House vote,” Chu, a Democrat from California, told NK News.
The family reunification bill’s passage out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — with bipartisan support — comes at a tense moment in U.S.-DPRK relations.
Nuclear negotiations between the two countries have stalled in recent weeks, with both sides seemingly unable to reach a deal over sanctions relief, the future of the North’s nuclear program, or even whether to keep negotiating.
And the final version of the Defense Department’s annual funding bill — the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — is also likely to contain provisions, ranging from military spending to sanctions policy, that North Korea may strongly oppose.
It is unclear when the final NDAA text, known as the conference version of the bill, will be made public.
But the legislation that passed out of committee on Wednesday — which would also have to be agreed to by the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump in order to become law — implies that family reunions may be a potential opening for cooperation between the U.S. and the North.
“The inclusion of Korean American families in the reunion process would constitute a positive humanitarian gesture by the Government of North Korea,” the text of the bill says.
HRNK’s Scarlatoiu, however, said that such a gesture, if it happens, would likely be highly limited in scope.
“Undoubtedly,” he said, “it has been the North Korean regime that has been applying the brakes here. Like any other type of engagement with the outside world, the regime always seeks to extract maximum benefits.”
“Even those limited contacts and family reunions between family members from the South and North have been limited,” he said.
“They cannot spend time together overnight. These meetings happen under the very strict supervision of the North Korean authorities.”
Featured image: U.S. Department of Defense