The Biden administration must decide by month’s end whether to keep or scrap a 2017 ban on travel to North Korea. The ban prevents Korean Americans who have families in the North from visiting them.
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: 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 BYLINE: 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 BYLINE: 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 BYLINE: 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 BYLINE: 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 BYLINE: 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 BYLINE: 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 BYLINE: 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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