SEOUL — The Biden administration has to decide by the end of the month whether to renew a ban on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea, and Americans with relatives in North Korea are eagerly awaiting the decision.
They include Kate Shim, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea in the 1970s. After the Korean War, her uncle was missing and her family believed he was in North Korea.
Shim says her great-grandmother told her father: "You need to find your brother because I know he's alive."
Shim's brother managed to track down their missing uncle in North Korea in the 1980s, finally reuniting him with his mother after more than 30 years.
In 1989, Shim started visiting relatives in North Korea, too.
"They were alive, and I was so happy to see my cousins," says Shim, 62. "We didn't care about, like, what politics, what kind of government we are under. We're just happy to see them."
In the 1940s and 50s, the division of Korea into two countries and the Korean War left as many as 10 million Koreans separated from their families. U.S. officials estimated in 2001 that the figure included 100,000 Korean Americans, but the number has dwindled as their communities age.
For many of the remaining members of that divided generation, time is running out to reunite with their relatives separated by geography and clashing governments.
Travel was banned after Otto Warmbier
The Trump administration enacted the ban following the June 2017 death of American college student Otto Warmbier after his release from detention in Pyongyang.
North Korean authorities arrested Warmbier in January 2016 and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for taking a propaganda poster in a hotel in Pyongyang. After being in custody for more than a year, the 22-year-old was flown home in a coma and died shortly after. North Korea has denied accusations of torture.
Last year, when Biden was a candidate, he said in an op-ed that as president he would work "to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades."
The administration has not commented on what it will do about the travel policy.
In a statement to NPR, the State Department said it renewed the restriction in September 2020 "due to continuing concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention in North Korea." The ban will expire on Sept. 1 unless the secretary of state extends or revokes it.
(The government's travel advisory also says not to visit North Korea now because of COVID-19.)
Detention risk or dialogue opportunity
Some experts on North Korea believe the threat of detention remains, and so should the restriction.
"At this moment, there's no reason to get rid of the travel ban," argues Anthony Ruggiero, a former National Security Council director for North Korea. He says Pyongyang has not abandoned its practice of detaining Americans as it hopes to secure political leverage over Washington.
The ban should only be lifted "when North Korea is more of a normal country, that doesn't kidnap people," says Ruggiero, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a research group in Washington that has advocated for a hard line against North Korea.
Ruggiero doesn't think allowing people-to-people exchanges will help persuade the government of Kim Jong Un to give up its nuclear weapons and missiles programs.
Other observers argue that reopening travel could be a start.
"The U.S. is saying we want the North Koreans to come to the table," notes Daniel Jasper, the Asia public education and advocacy coordinator at the American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based peace advocacy group. "In order to do that," he says, "we have to get back to baseline level of engagement, or North Koreans will continue to understand that to mean that the U.S. is not really sincere in their attempts to engage."
Jasper attended a meeting recently where several civic groups tried to persuade administration officials to lift the ban.
The White House has said it's taking a "calibrated practical approach" toward potential diplomacy with North Korea. This week, Biden's envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, said he discussed with South Korean officials possible ways to address humanitarian cooperation with North Korea.
Meanwhile, advocates and lawmakers have pushed for help reuniting divided Korean families. A bill is now before the Senate that would require U.S. officials to consult with Korean Americans on progress on these efforts.
Opening up helps to seek closure
One of the lucky ones who made it was Choon Lim. He was born in Nampo, North Korea, and fled to South Korea during the war. He later settled in Chicago.
In 1998, he visited North Korea hoping to find his father, but discovered he had died six years before.
When it came time for Lim to pour an offering of liquor before his father's ashes, he froze for an instant, that felt like an eternity.
"All those 47 years, what I have experienced, how I lived, how we lived in the South, all those things came down through my head. And I collapsed. I couldn't do it," remembers Lim, who is 75.
Lim later returned to North Korea several times with other Korean American families.
"I worked for helping separated family members visiting North Korea," he says, "because every one of the separated families should have the same kind of a closure that I had."
Waiting for a peaceful resolution
Ed Kang is also in favor of ending the travel ban. Born in 1934, he grew up in a Christian family in Pyongyang. He fled to avoid persecution under the communist regime, walking with his father the roughly 120 miles to Seoul in the winter of 1950.
"Many times, I was almost killed, but I survived," Kang recalls. "I saw the hand of God, protecting me and guiding me." Kang became a Presbyterian minister in the U.S., and returned to North Korea several times to visit his mother and younger brother, after being separated for more than 30 years.
He says the travel ban is causing unnecessary suffering, and removing it would be "making a contribution to a kind of peaceful resolution between the U.S. and North Korea."
Even if the ban is lifted, though, North Korea remains closed to the outside world, due to the pandemic. It has stopped answering hotline connecting it with South Korea, and says it is "not even considering" negotiations with the U.S.
Se Eun Gong contributed to this story from Seoul and Michele Kelemen from Washington, D.C.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Biden administration must decide by the end of the month whether to renew a 4-year-old ban on Americans traveling to North Korea. Many Americans with relatives in North Korea are eagerly awaiting the decision. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Seoul.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The division of Korea into two states in 1945 and the Korean War resulted in as many as 10 million Koreans being separated from their families. That includes an estimated 100,000 Korean Americans, although that number has dwindled as they age. Kate Shim is one of them. Her uncle disappeared following the Korean War and was believed to be in North Korea. Her great-grandmother gave her father some instructions.
KATE SHIM: She told him that - you need to find your father because I know he's alive.
KUHN: While studying in China in the 1980s, Shim's brother went to North Korea and tracked down the missing uncle, eventually reuniting him with his mother after 37 years apart. Shim, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, has traveled to the north to meet her family.
SHIM: They were alive. And I was so happy to see my cousins. We didn't care about what kind of government we are under, right? We just happy to see them.
KUHN: Another one of the lucky ones is Choon Lim. He was born in Nampo, North Korea. He fled to the South during the war and later settled in Chicago. He returned to North Korea in 1998 hoping to find his father but found out that he had passed away six years before. When it came time for Lim to pour an offering of liquor before his father's ashes, he froze for an instant, which felt like an eternity.
CHOON LIM: All those 47 years, what I have experienced - all those things came down through my head. So I collapsed. I couldn't do it.
KUHN: Lim later returned to North Korea several times with other Korean American families.
LIM: I worked for - helping separated family members because I want every one of the separated family - should have same kind of a closure that I had.
KUHN: But Lim and other Korean Americans are currently locked out by a travel ban enacted in 2017 by the Trump administration. It was in response to the death of Otto Warmbier, a Cincinnati college student arrested on a visit to North Korea for stealing a propaganda poster. He was returned to the U.S. in a coma and died six days later.
ANTHONY RUGGIERO: At this moment, there's no reason to get rid of the travel ban.
KUHN: Anthony Ruggiero is a former National Security Council director for North Korea, now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He points out that North Korea has a history of detaining Americans, sometimes requiring former presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to travel to North Korea to bring them home. As for the ban, Ruggiero says...
RUGGIERO: When that would be lifted is when North Korea is more of a normal country that doesn't kidnap people.
KUHN: He adds that the U.S. can grant exceptions to the ban, such as for family reunions, humanitarian aid groups and journalists. But he says allowing people-to-people exchanges won't do much to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapon and missile programs. Others, though, argue that it could be a start. Daniel Jasper coordinates Asia advocacy at the American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based peace advocacy group.
DANIEL JASPER: The U.S. is saying we want the North Koreans to come to the table. In order to do that, we have to get back to baseline level of engagement.
KUHN: Even if the travel ban is scrapped, for now, North Korea remains closed because of the pandemic. That's not good news for Korean Americans, many of whom were separated from their families in the North more than 70 years ago. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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