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US Senators Push for Action on Reunions with N. Korean Families

FILE - Republican Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois.
FILE - Republican Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois.

A group of U.S. senators is proposing legislation to try to reunite Korean Americans with their families in North Korea.

The move comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test and long-range missile launch.

Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, along with Senators Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, introduced a bill Wednesday to push the U.S. to take action on reunions between family members in the U.S. and North Korea, who were separated during the Korean War six decades ago.

The bill would require the U.S. to consult with South Korea about opportunities for reunions. It also would call for the U.S. special representative on North Korea policy to meet with the Korean Americans every six months to brief them on the reunion efforts.

“Time is running out for these reunifications to happen and more families will have no knowledge of their loved ones’ whereabouts,” Kirk, a longtime advocate for the families, told VOA Thursday through email.

'Voice and hope'

“We need to make sure that there is an official channel to assist in the reunification of Korean Americans. This bipartisan bill gives a voice and hope to the thousands of families seeking reunification,” he said.

The U.S. State Department refused to comment on the bill. “As a matter of policy, the department does not comment on pending legislation,” a department official told VOA Friday through email.

The divided Korean American families have been working to raise awareness of the issue since 2000. In 2008, they organized the National Coalition on the Divided Families, a group of representatives from 13 states, to launch a campaign seeking support from the U.S.

It is estimated that about 100,000 Korean Americans have relatives in North Korea. Some have met privately with relatives, but no meetings have been arranged through the U.S. government.

The two Koreas have arranged 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000 through government channels. Nearly 20,000 people from both sides have participated. The last round of inter-Korean reunions was held in October 2015.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Korean service.