Korean Reunion Project Aimed at Americans

Times Staff Writer

If there is a black hole in the global communications network, it might be called North Korea. It is nearly impossible to get a letter, a phone call or even an e-mail through to an ordinary citizen in the isolated communist nation.

So, five decades after war left their peninsula divided, many Koreans living outside the Stalinist state still do not know whether family members in the North survived or perished. The uncertainty particularly affects Korean Americans, who are largely excluded from programs to find lost relations.

One of the most active U.S. charities working in North Korea announced Wednesday that it would try to fill this void with a program it hoped would eventually lead to family reunions. The Eugene Bell Foundation, which operates out of Washington and Seoul to support tuberculosis clinics in North Korea, said it would start by collecting family information from Korean Americans who belong to separated families.

“These people are in their 70s and 80s, and there are fewer and fewer of them every year. Many of them don’t speak English well and don’t understand the system well. They need our help if they will ever see their relative again,” said Alice Jean Suh, Washington office director of the foundation and head of the campaign.


The foundation announced the campaign at a news conference Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington.

After a landmark summit in 2000 between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, periodic family reunions were set up under the auspices of the two governments. Since then, 11,788 Koreans have attended reunions. However, there is a long waiting list to participate, and only citizens of South and North Korea can apply.

“This is a glaring oversight,” said Stephen Winn Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation and great-grandson of the Protestant missionary for whom the charity is named. “The United States has a security dialogue with North Korea. We have official channels dealing with human rights, but nothing for our own citizens of ethnic Korean descent.”

Linton, who travels frequently inside North Korea, said he had not had official contacts with the regime about a reunion program but believed it might be receptive.

He said that a few Korean Americans had met with family members in the North through an agency there called the Overseas Compatriot Protection Committee, but that such opportunities have been limited to people who are wealthy or well connected.

“If you’re a senior citizen without money to do a trip on your own, there is no place you can turn to,” Linton said.

More than 2 million ethnic Koreans live or work in the United States, according to figures supplied by the South Korean Foreign Ministry last year. About 10% of the population of South Korea is believed to have family members in the North, but the percentage is thought to be higher among Korean Americans because many of those displaced during World War II or the 1950-1953 Korean War came to the United States.

Millions of families were wrenched apart in the chaos of the war years.


“This is a very painful and emotional issue for us,” said Cha-hee Lee Stanfield, a 65-year-old librarian in Chicago who is working on the reunion project through the Korean-American Coalition of the Midwest. She has been trying for decades to meet a brother she has not seen since her family was separated near the Chinese-North Korean border at the end of World War II. “There is no way to communicate.”

In 2001, Korean Americans collected more than 20,000 signatures on a petition calling for the State Department to raise the issue of separated families with the North Korean government.

A meeting was set up by Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.) with then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. But the effort stalled amid deteriorating relations between the United States and North Korea largely because of conflict over the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.