The controversy over North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons plays on. The six-party negotiations are reconvening Thursday. North Korea has offered to freeze its program; the U.S. says much more is required for any deal.
Experience should dampen expectations of a breakthrough. Even if an agreement is reached, many issues will remain unresolved. The international chess game involving the Korean peninsula is far from over.
So far the U.S. has been outplayed by the North Koreans. Even as international frustration with Pyongyang has grown, the Bush administration has won few adherents to its hard-line stance. It’s time for Washington to try a new gambit to improve America’s negotiating position.
Washington should encourage private contacts with the North that would simultaneously reduce human hardship, improve America’s credibility, and provide a new window into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A good place to start would be with the problem of divided families, an issue made particularly urgent by the ravages of time.
ONE OF THE GREAT TRAGEDIES of the Korean War — a conflict filled with vast death, brutality, and horror — was the division of families. Thousands, probably tens of thousands, of families were broken apart by the fighting which ranged down, up, and back down the peninsula.
With the two Koreas locked in a bitter cold war, family reunification was impossible. Indeed, many South Koreans were hesitant even to acknowledge their lost relatives to avoid falling under suspicion by the authoritarian, anti-communist regime in the South. Some South Koreans who were less discreet ended up on government blacklists for education or employment.
More than 100,000 South Koreans, many of them with family members north of the Demilitarized Zone, ended up in the U.S. Although none of them risk ostracism for having relatives in the North, there are no official ties, even diplomatic relations, between the U.S. and North Korean governments. Private contacts are almost as sparse. Thus, Korean-Americans have no direct means of contacting relatives, or even finding out if they are still alive.
Some people never learn what happened to their family members. Others get some news, but only at great cost. A lucky few have enjoyed reunions in North Korea.
Warns the Eugene Bell Foundation, “Desperate and elderly Korean-Americans are often forced to pay large sums through dangerous and unaccountable channels for news about their relatives.” Such mechanisms not only are expensive and unreliable. Attempting to communicate with North Korea can raise suspicions from U.S. agencies, earning a visit from the FBI.
Complains Se-heum Hong, president of the Korean-American Coalition of the Midwest: “Many are afraid because they fear that being from Noth Korea will get them in trouble. Others just don’t know where to go, or who would be able to help them.”
Last year the Foundation, created by Stephen Linton, whose great-grandfather went to Korea as a missionary in 1895, launched a campaign to increase personal contacts and reunify families across the demilitarized zone. Eugene Bell, with offices in Seoul, long has aided North Korean hospitals and tuberculosis centers with equipment and training: on an annual budget of $3 to $4 million the Foundation has helped channel assistance to upwards of one-third of the DPRK’s population. (The group is beginning to move into maternal and infant care as well.)
Perhaps Eugene Bell’s greatest strength is that it has provided meaningful humanitarian assistance while avoiding larger political controversies. Moreover, by strictly monitoring the aid, the Foundation has forestalled many of the criticisms leveled against Western food assistance over the years.
Linton hopes to achieve similar results with the Foundation’s “Saemsori” project.
Saemsori’s most basic task is simply collecting information on Korean-Americans with separated families. (The Foundation also hopes to create an archive of oral histories, letters, and photos.)
About 125,000 South Koreans have registered with their government for family reunions. The South’s Red Cross has 700 names of Korean-Americans; Eugene Bell has so far collected another 150. The better organized the separated families, the better their chance of transcending the trans-Pacific gap.
SOMETHING MORE WOULD BE helpful, however: a formal mechanism for exchanging information with the DPRK. Linton suggests an independent commission, a quasi-governmental body separate from the political negotiations that dominate today’s contacts between North Korea and America. “We’re not asking for a handout, only an official mechanism,” he says.
Alice Jean Suh, who directs the Saemsori Project, believes that such an office could create a comprehensive data base, submit names to North Korea to locate living relatives, and establish transparency standards (such as DNA matching to confirm identities) for contacts.
“These are vulnerable and elderly American citizens, desperate to see their families before they die,” she notes. Eugene Bell’s proposed system could “guarantee the legitimacy” of reunification efforts, she adds. In this way we are “lobbying on behalf of grandmothers in America.”
Linton sees another benefit of such a step: improving U.S. credibility in dealing with North Korean human rights and refugees. Right now these concerns “are seen as a political tactic, including in South Korea,” he explains. Many Asians discount Washington’s professed humanitarian concern for Koreans on the peninsula when it seems unwilling to help its own citizens of Korean heritage.
Although Linton and Suh have been working to educate Congress, some legislators and staffers have balked, fearing criticism for being weak on North Korea. “Everyone thinks it is a great idea, but no one wants to be the first one,” says Suh. Administration support would end such worries.
Congressmen also could reap a political benefit from Korean- Americans. Se-heum Hong notes: “We need to remember that North Korea is not just a foreign policy issue, but a domestic issue.”
For years, America’s dealings with the DPRK have ended up at a deadend. Washington should look for small, non-controversial steps which could benefit both sides. Divided families could be reunified, for instance, even if the governments of North Korea and America remain deadlocked over nuclear weapons. And there’s always a possibility, no matter how slight, that dialogue begun in this area might positively influence the discussion of other, more controversial topics.
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