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Reuniting families is a critical step in diplomacy with North Korea

Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images/Getty Images

Despite tense rhetoric and recent missile tests, the U.S. and North Korea are still tentatively planning for more talks this summer following Trump’s spontaneous meeting with Kim Jong Un. Time, however, is not on the side of negotiators regardless of Trump’s comments that he is in “no rush” to reach a deal.

Several important factors add urgency to this round of talks, and many are mindful that the approaching campaign season may give Trump the impetus to show progress quickly.

North Korea watchers will also recall that this spring, Kim Jong Un gave the U.S. until the end of this year to find a new approach – adding another deadline for progress. Beyond the political clocks, humanitarian issues such as a looming tuberculosis crisis and increasing food insecurity will need to be addressed by all relevant stakeholders in the next few months or the risk of another global humanitarian crisis will increase significantly and unnecessarily.

With the sporadic nature of the diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, as well as important time-sensitivities, serious consideration should be given to consistent means of engagement that can help extend the timeline for talks and buttress working level discussions or even bridge the gaps between high-level summits.

In 70 years of conflict between the U.S. and North Korea a myriad of issues has accumulated and entangled so effectively that it can be difficult to separate any issue from the denuclearization question.

However, this conflict still has daily impacts on the lives of Koreans and Americans.

At least two urgent and non-aid-related humanitarian issues present important opportunities at this juncture– the repatriation of remains from over 5,000 U.S. servicemembers left in North Korea after the war and reunions between Korean Americans and their families in the North.

Last summer, North Korea returned 55 boxes containing the remains of U.S. servicemembers following the signing of the Singapore Agreement, which contained a provision that stated, “the United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.” While operations to repatriate remains have since been suspended, I have heard from both U.S. and North Korean officials that these operations, aside from the summits themselves, have been one of the most successful material cooperations during this recent détente.

That’s a significant point that bears repeating – both U.S. and North Korean officials have (at least, informally) recognized that the relatively simple operation of handing over remains has been a high point of U.S.-North Korea cooperation under Trump. These operations, therefore, need to be pursued independent of nuclear negotiations in order to establish regular, direct contact that can be maintained despite any political turbulence. Carrying out these operations not only provides closure for families of U.S. servicemembers that have waited nearly 70 years to find out what happened to their loved ones, but also allows Washington and Pyongyang critical military-to-military contact.

In a similar vein, many Korean American families have been hoping to reunite with their families in North Korea for just as long and, in some cases, longer. Following the Korean War, over 100,000 divided Korean families came to the U.S. Estimates suggest that several thousand of those families are still living, and Korean American organizations have consistently reported requests from the community to reunite with loved ones.

As in the case of repatriation operations, reunions between Korean Americans and their families in North Korea represent an important opportunity for consistent, ongoing engagement that addresses another often-forgotten humanitarian crisis. Further, as the issue of remains repatriation is exclusively discussed between the two militaries, reunions between divided families would allow diplomats a parallel exercise in cooperation; a win-win-win.

It’s also worth noting that both issues of remains repatriation and family reunions are bipartisan and have been fully embraced by Congress. Remains repatriation even received congressional appropriated funds for recovery operations. Several bills in the House that focus exclusively on family reunions, though, are stalled and need action, such as Rep. Grace Meng’s (D-N.Y.) bill HR 1771 the Divided Families Reunification Act as well as Rep. Karen Bass’ (D-Calif.) resolution H Res. 410 – Encouraging reunions of divided Korean-American families.

The issues are mentioned as necessary components to transforming this conflict in many pieces of legislation going back years. Other current examples include H Res 152 Calling for a formal end to the Korean War and HR 2949 the North Korea Policy Oversight Act.

In order to truly transform the U.S.-North Korea relationship, we will need to untangle issues of individual security from issues of arms control and international norms. Reuniting families (living and deceased), then, offers a viable way to help heal the wounds of war while, at the same time, cultivating the environment necessary to effectively discuss high level concerns of the U.S. and North Korea.

Daniel Jasper is the American Friends Service Committee’s Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Asia.

Tags Grace Meng Karen Bass Kim Jong Un

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