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Changing Korean-American Exclusion From North-South Reunions


Hundreds of families are reuniting this week in North Korea - husbands and wives, parents and children, some of whom had not seen one another for more than 60 years. The two Koreas allow the visits from time to time across the world's most militarized border. The reunions are only temporary, but these are the lucky families.

About 100,000 Korean-Americans also have relatives in North Korea, but they are not allowed to participate. And as these Korean-American's age, time is running out for them to reunite with the family members they left behind. Chahee Stanfield is an advocate for these Korean-Americans, and she joins us now from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHAHEE STANFIELD: Hi, thank you.

MARTIN: Can you explain why Korean-Americans are excluded from these reunion programs?

STANFIELD: The North Korea and the South Korea started negotiating about their reunion in 1985. And North Korea wanted to exclude Korean-American divided families. I can only guess why South Korea went along with this and why North Korea wanted to exclude us. South Korea has millions of divided families, and they had waited for the moment for more than 30 years. And they didn't want to ruin or delay the chance of the reunion because of the Korean-American divided families.

MARTIN: When did you get really involved with this issue? When did it become important to you to start advocating on behalf of Korean-Americans who are divided from their families in North Korea?

STANFIELD: In March 2000, I went to see a young man named Mark Kirk, who was running for Congress. And I thought, he has a Korean adopted sister and his father fought during the Korean War, so I thought, OK, he was a good start to begin with. So he got elected in November that year. Then as soon as he got elected, he started working on our issue.

MARTIN: So how can you affect change? I mean, it sounds like what you're advocating for is a change in U.S. policy towards North Korea? It's hard to move the levers on that.

STANFIELD: It is. The hardest part was unlike the South Korean divided family members, we have just one step to convince the U.S. government how important and how urgent our issue is and was. So that was the biggest barrier.

MARTIN: Barring any change in the U.S. position on North Korea - that somehow that relationship would warm and all of a sudden the policy would be reversed and these families could be reunited - barring that, is there any alternative?

STANFIELD: There is a black market, and this is not very reliable. In 1990s, the black market business was booming because there was the era of parents who are in their last years. So we were frantic to find out whether they are still alive.

MARTIN: Does that work?

STANFIELD: It's - a lot of times, they're scammed over and over. But they still try to find different channel because there are some successful stories. So it's just desperation.

MARTIN: Chahee Stanfield is director of the National Coalition for the Divided Families. She joined us from Chicago. Thanks so much for talking with us.

STANFIELD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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