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California's 40th District

Feb 21, 2021 | In The News

When Kyui Bok Yoo fell in love with a young man and followed him to southern Korea in the early 1940s, she couldn’t have dreamed that the Korean peninsula would soon be bitterly divided — or that she’d be cut off from her younger sister forever.

“She went decades without seeing her, and that was her dying wish,” said Jason Ahn, 37, Yoo’s grandson, who today is an emergency room physician in Los Angeles and a fierce advocate for divided Korean families.

The Yoo story is common. Brothers were separated from sisters, husbands from wives, even mothers from their children as millions of people fled North Korea in the years before Communist leaders closed the border for citizens amid a 1953 stalemate to the Korean War.

And, for 68 years, most refugees who fled North Korea have had no way to find out if the people they left behind are still alive, let alone visit or communicate with them. North Koreans generally can’t leave the country and they have no or limited internet access. Even letters are reviewed and often interceded, particularly if they’re coming to or from the United States, where Yoo eventually ended up.

“This isn’t just a Korean story,” Ahn said. “It’s an American story.”

A bill introduced this month and backed by a bipartisan group of Southern California lawmakers aims to change that narrative. It would require U.S. officials for the first time to prioritize helping Korean Americans — many of whom have been American citizens for decades — reunite with loved ones in North Korea.

Righting a historic wrong

Under the Divided Families Reunification Act, the Secretary of State and the U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea Human Rights Issues would consult with South Korean officials, who have facilitated multiple in-person reunions between family members divided on the Korean peninsula.

Federal officials also would work with the Korean American community to find separated family members and arrange potential reunions, including possible video chats. And they’d be required to regularly report back to Congress regarding progress on connecting Korean Americans with relatives in North Korea.

“The South and North Korean governments have facilitated 21 reunions and 7 video reunions since they began implementing family reunions in 1985. Unfortunately, the estimated 100,000 Korean Americans with family members in North Korea have been left out of this process entirely,” said Rep. Young Kim, R-La Habra, who is an original cosponsor of the bill.

Kim, who with two colleagues in November became the first Korean American women in Congress, has been working on the issue of divided Korean families since she was an aide in former Rep. Ed Royce’s office two decades ago. So a month into her first term, Kim eagerly signed on to this bill authored by Rep. Grace Meng, D-New York.

Seven other California lawmakers joined Kim as original cosponsors on the bill, including 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 first and second largest populations of Korean Americans in the country, so local lawmakers say their constituents frequently raise this issue.

“I’m constantly hearing from families in my district about the urgent need to take action and help reunify Korean Americans with their loved ones in North Korea,” Porter said. “It’s heartbreaking that so many of them have been separated from their families for so long, and it’s a tragedy that so many Americans have passed away without seeing or hearing from their loved ones in North Korea.”

Past resolutions have supported the concept of family reunions, but they didn’t have teeth.

In 2019, Meng introduced a nearly identical bill with the 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 bill, which later drew support from Porter and others. That version passed the House, with a unanimous vote in March 2020, but died in the Senate when the clock ran out while it sat at the committee level.

This year’s iteration of the bill, introduced earlier in the session, has quickly drawn more support. President Joe Biden also wrote an op-ed in a Korean language outlet before his election promising to address the issue, as grassroots support for family reunions has spread. So advocates are optimistic that the Divided Families Reunification Act will soon become law.

“This is a nonpartisan issue and I’m glad my colleagues in Congress agree,” Steel said. “I hope these family members, some of whom have been separated from their loved ones for decades, have the opportunity to see each other again before it’s too late.”

Time is running out

Time is of the essence.

The often-cited estimate of 100,000 Korean Americans who potentially have family members in North Korea is based on 2000 Census figures. Given the age of survivors, Paul Lee, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Divided Families USA, estimates there might now be just several thousand North Korean refugees left in the United States.

That’s why his organization has started recording video messages from some of the 100 divided family members on their registry, so that if they’re not able to reunite with their relatives before they pass, activists can potentially still relay that message to the family member in North Korea.

Hyun Joon Lee, 92, recorded a video message from a hospital bed in Virginia in 2019. Lee addressed his message to then-President Donald Trump, begging him to facilitate reunions so he could reconnect with the wife, son and three sisters he was forced to leave behind when the Korean War broke out.

“Even animals get to be with their families, but I have 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 wife and child in North Korea?” he asked. “I think 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 many young men and boys who were sent south as the Korean War broke out so they wouldn’t be forcibly conscripted into the North Korean army. That’s what happened to the oldest brother of Paul Lee’s grandfather, who is still trying to find his brother today. And when Ahn took time off from medical school to make a documentary called Divided Families, he talked to two other men who fled alone, saying they expected to reunite with their families in months if not weeks.

Some North Koreans also fled in fear of the violence that was breaking out, with stories of mothers losing their children’s hands in the chaos. Wealthy land owners left the north so the Communist government wouldn’t seize their property. Other people were taken as prisoners of war or as political hostages — some even years after the ceasefire.

That was the case 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 advocate for reunification. Stanfield said Do’s older brother was serving on a South Korean naval vessel in 1970 when he was kidnapped by North Korean forces, and he hasn’t been heard from since.

“Mr. Jong Hyun Do would like to know whether his brother Jong Mu Do is still alive or not,” Stanfield said. “If his brother has passed away, he would like to have the remains returned so that they can be buried next to his mother’s, in accordance with her final wish.”

Rocky reunions

South Korea has been working with North Korea since 1985 to arrange reunification meetings between family members, with a registry of tens of thousands of people who have relatives across the border.

South Korea holds lotteries to select who gets to participate each time. To date, 21 such meetings have been held, reuniting some 44,000 families. Each time, family members take a bus across the demilitarized zone to spend two or three days at a tourist resort in North Korea where they get to spend a few hours each day in supervised visits with the siblings, parents, spouses and cousins they haven’t seen in decades.


The last such reunion took place in August 2018. Since then, North Korea apparently has been unwilling to come back to the table.

The situation has been even more difficult to navigate for divided family members in the United States, which doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Sungkwan Jang with the Korean American Grassroots Conference said one of the first hurdles for the Biden administration will be appointing a U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea Human Rights Issues. That position has been vacant since 2017, when former president Donald Trump merged that role with another to save money.

When the issue of family reunification has been raised in the past, Lee said North Korea has used it in negotiations to ease sanctions or make other political concessions.

“They insist on thinking about these elderly divided families as more of a bargaining chip, which is really cruel. But that’s kind of how it fits into their calculations.”

Still, Ahn hopes the issue can become a way for the U.S. to positively engage with North Korea.

Meanwhile, some North Korean refugees in the U.S. remain afraid to advocate for themselves, Ahn noted. Many still have Cold War-era fears of being mistrusted by fellow Americans, or they fear their relatives in North Korea will be mistreated because they’re considered “defectors.” Ahn also said reunification isn’t a topic that parents and grandparents readily discuss with children who’ve been born in the United States.

“The second generation, we’re kind of taught, don’t worry about that kind of stuff. Work hard, study hard, be successful and do not go through the pain we’ve had to go through as immigrants in post-war Korea.”

Some desperate Korean Americans have quietly turned to brokers in China or Canada who offer to arrange reunions for fees that can soar above $90,000. Sometimes these meetings work, Lee said. Sometimes, the brokers make a genuine effort but can’t locate the family member. Other times, these brokers are fraudsters who rip off vulnerable seniors.

Even the South Korean system for reunions isn’t ideal, Lee argues, since families have no way to communicate after those meetings. That can lead to mental health issues for the family members who relive the trauma of separation all over again.

Lee and many other advocates hope the Divided Families Reunification Act will open a door to more sustained communication between divided family members, including options to arrange letter exchanges, phone calls and video chats along with in-person visits as COVID-19 eases.

Advocates for the bill also hope to see a surge of support from non-Korean Americans who, in the pandemic, will sympathize with others who’ve been separated from their loved ones.

“It’s only been a year,” Ahn said. “Imagine that going on for your whole life.”

Pasadena Star-News

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