April 13, 2024

My grandfather rarely spoke, except through his saxophone. He was a man of few words but a lot of heart. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I learned that he was born in what is now called North Korea, but I do remember thinking, “I’m too old to be learning this for the first time.” Like thousands of Korean Americans, my family is still divided by the ongoing war in Korea and the current U.S. travel ban to North Korea.

On Tuesday, the State Department announced that the Biden administration will extend the travel ban to North Korea for another year. This draconian ban was initially instituted in 2017 under former President Trump and prevents thousands of Korean Americans from reuniting with family in North Korea. Americans can still use their U.S. passports to visit some countries with travel restrictions, such as Cuba and Iran. But no U.S. passport is valid for travel to North Korea. Instead, U.S. citizens must apply for a totally separate “special validation passport.” The State Department has unfettered discretion as to whether it grants this passport, and does so only in exceedingly exceptional circumstances.

Before 2017, thousands of U.S. citizens traveled to North Korea, many of them Korean Americans seeking to reunite with family from whom they became separated during the Korean War. The State Department made this decision despite the repeated urging of activists to lift this inhumane ban.

My paternal grandfather fled North Korea during the war and lived the rest of his life separated from his siblings and family members. Decades after this separation, he participated in an effort coordinated by a nongovernmental organization to reunite split Korean families when travel to North Korea was still permitted prior to 2017. In North Korea, he was shown a faded photograph of his elementary Sunday school class to verify that he was, in fact, related to family members with whom he sought to reunite. My grandfather failed to recognize his younger self in this photograph but recognized his teacher. This happenstance recognition permitted him to meet his sister, from whom he had been separated for nearly 50 years. He was able to meet her children for the first time and learned that his younger brother had passed away.

Our family has otherwise remained divided.

For years, I hesitated to look at photographs of our relatives in North Korea because I was afraid of what I’d feel. To even dream about the possibility of lifting this travel ban felt frightening because fighting for change would open me up to heartbreak. I have been tempted to settle into pessimism and dismiss attempts for change as naive. An elder Korean peace activist described this tendency as “so Korean”: to break my own heart before anyone else could break it for me. She counseled me instead to engage in peace advocacy and learn from intergenerational Koreans from across the diaspora who have kept the fight aflame for decades.

If it weren’t for the wise council of elders who map movements in lifetimes, this week’s announcement would have been another reason for pessimism. However, we must remember that we in the U.S. — especially Korean Americans (gyopo) — have an important role to play. In the days before his election, President Biden pledged “to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.” But his administration has yet to make good on that promise. Biden instead escalates militarization and hurtles us closer to nuclear conflict, sending nuclear-capable submarines to Korea for the first time in 42 years. He also recently convened a trilateral summit with South Korea and Japan, further entrenching an escalatory militarized approach illustrated by this week’s large-scale “Ulchi Freedom Shield” war drills which involved the participation of 12 countries total.

Activists have been fighting against this alarming militarization and forever war-making, including through a congressional bill, the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act. This bill calls for urgent diplomacy in pursuit of a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War and urges the State Department to review and revise its travel restrictions. While the majority of the U.S. public supports the peace process in Korea, it is up to constituents to ensure our elected officials reflect this. Currently, 34 members of Congress are co-sponsors of the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, and through our advocacy, we can grow this number.

On the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement last month, scholars and activists gathered to call for a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War. Among them, Dr. Kee Park, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, decried the current sanctions imposed on North Korea by the U.S., U.N. and others as deadly and “immoral.” Park has traveled to North Korea over 20 times, and said Korean Americans must act as a bridge from our community to the general U.S. public.

While the two Korean governments have facilitated a handful of brief “reunions” between residents of South and North Korea, Korean Americans have been left out of this process entirely. This U.S.-imposed travel ban is unjust and inhumane. For Korean Americans, we cannot heal this intergenerational pain until this travel ban is lifted. We must strategize, organize and educate our communities to ensure that this draconian ban is not renewed again.

Cathi Choi is the director of policy and organizing for Women Cross DMZ and co-coordinator of Korea Peace Now! Grassroots Network. She is based in Los Angeles. @CathiSChoi


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