While the lingering nuclear threat from Pyongyang will be the top priority in the Biden administration’s ongoing North Korea policy review, a more personal concern weighs on the minds of many Americans: Will they ever see or know what happened to their family members in North Korea?
Thousands of Americans have endured family separation for nearly 70 years due to the Korean War. That’s true for some 100,000 Korean Americans, who have looked on painfully from the sidelines as families split between South and North Korea have reunited 21 times since 1985. It also applies to the families of over 5,300 U.S. troops whose remains are still unaccounted for and far from home. These are typical post-war reconciliation efforts – but the operative term there is “post-war,” and the war still hasn’t formally ended due to deadlocked relations between the conflict parties.
Time is running out for these Americans who remember their loved ones lost in the Forgotten War. The Biden administration should exhaust all options to bring prisoners of war and missing in action (POW/MIA) servicemembers home and reunite elderly Korean Americans separated from their families. After all, as President Joe Biden has said in another context, “Families belong together. Period.”
For the most part, these issues haven’t been prioritized in U.S.-North Korea high-level diplomacy. Even when there have been discussions, progress on these humanitarian issues has been held up by roadblocks in the larger denuclearization challenge. Top-down direction would help lay the bureaucratic groundwork necessary to leap into action when the opportunity arises for reunions and recovery efforts.
These issues have been particularly personal for Chahee Lee Stanfield and Rick Downes, two Americans who have worked tirelessly on these issues. Stanfield, a 79-year-old Korean American who has been separated from her father and brother in North Korea since 1950, is the executive director of the National Coalition on the Divided Families. She has urged the U.S. government to elevate the issue and persuade Seoul and Pyongyang to allow American citizens to join inter-Korean family reunions. Over the years, there have been promising steps: provisions in 2008 and 2011 laws directing the administration – and particularly the special representative on North Korea policy – to prioritize the issue and keep Congress informed, and a 2016 joint resolution in Congress encouraging North Korea to allow Korean Americans to reunite with their families. But meaningful progress ground to a halt in 2011, after the sudden death of North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong Il and the subsequent collapse of the 2012 “Leap Day Deal.”
Rick Downes, the son of a U.S. airman who went MIA in North Korea in 1952 and head of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, has seen more encouraging progress on remains recovery. From 1990-1994, North Korea unilaterally repatriated 208 boxes of remains, and from 1996-2005, the United States and North Korea conducted 33 joint recovery operations, recovering 229 boxes of remains. In 2016, Downes went to Pyongyang with the Richardson Center to negotiate the return of U.S. remains and a search for missing air crew members like his father. Notably, the 2018 U.S.-North Korea Singapore Statement included an explicit commitment to returning POW/MIA remains, which led North Korea to deliver 55 boxes of remains from approximately 255 individuals. But these initiatives, like the possibility of family reunions, have been subject to the ups and downs in U.S.-North Korea diplomacy. As a result they have been suspended multiple times, including most recently with the breakdown of negotiations in Hanoi in February 2019.
The United States can work to break this cycle. But it will take bold leadership to deal with North Korea as it is, not as we hope it to be, and a keen eye to make progress where it is possible. A promising first step is Biden’s recognition of the unresolved Korean War’s human consequences and commitment to pursuing “principled diplomacy” with North Korea and reuniting Korean American divided families. An approach that prioritizes separated families and missing servicemembers could open new fronts for U.S.-North Korea engagement, even offering a side door to security negotiations.
Also promising is sustained, bipartisan Congressional support for these issues. That’s most recently exemplified by the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act reintroduced last month, which stipulates travel exemptions for family reunions and the repatriation of POW/MIA remains, and the Divided Families Reunification Act, which would require the State Department to consult with the South Korean government and Korean American community on family reunions.
But there are still many immediate, practical steps the Biden administration can take to lay the groundwork for family reunions and recovery operations. And regardless of the outcome of the ongoing North Korea policy review, the administration should commit to prioritizing the reunion of American and North Korean families and the recovery of U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in North Korea. To demonstrate its commitment, the Biden administration should aim to consult members of POW/MIA and divided families, like Stanfield and Downes, during its review process.
Next, the United States should explicitly outline that recovery operations and family reunions are humanitarian issues exempt from sanctions and travel restrictions. The United States currently prohibits American citizens from traveling to North Korea, with a short exemptions list. The formal addition of POW/MIA recovery operations and in-person or virtual family reunions to that list would remove an unnecessary barrier and acknowledge the importance of these issues.
On divided families, the Biden administration should empower an institution to begin compiling a formal registry of Korean Americans separated from their families in North Korea. While grassroots organizations like Stanfield’s have created informal lists, their efforts would be vastly empowered with the backing of financial and institutional resources. Establishing a comprehensive database is a critical first and time-saving step toward family reunions. The American Red Cross stands out as a uniquely capable institution that has family tracing infrastructure from its work in reconnecting families separated as a result of armed conflict, international disasters, and migration, such as its successful facilitation of a reunion of sisters separated during World War II.
On missing U.S. servicemembers, the Biden administration should build on the commitment agreed to at the Singapore Summit by pursuing sustained, high-level engagement on restarting recovery operations. Biden should utilize a whole of government approach to empower special envoys from the Pentagon or Congress to advocate on behalf of Korean War POW/MIAs and Korean American divided families at the negotiating table with Pyongyang.
The challenges on the Korean Peninsula have never just been abstract foreign policy issues happening “over there” – they have touched the lives of thousands of American families. As the next generation of Korean Americans, whose parents and grandparents were directly affected by the Korean War, that’s true for us as well. For us, and for those like Rick Downes and Chahee Lee Stanfield, whose families are still darkened by the Korean War’s long shadow, closure cannot wait any longer.