The Honorable Antony J. Blinken
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520
September 6, 2022
Dear Secretary Blinken:
We, the undersigned individuals, write to express our disappointment in the State Department’s August 23, 2022 decision to renew the 2017 travel ban to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) instituted by the Trump administration and urge you to make modifications to the ban while working to sunset it.
As those who have traveled to North Korea for humanitarian activities, family reunions, the repatriation of U.S. service member remains, and peace and reconciliation initiatives, we understand the importance and urgency of continuing people-to-people engagement in North Korea, especially as tensions mount on the Korean Peninsula. We believe the ban—which is the only such ban on the freedom of movement by U.S. citizens—is not only unnecessary but harmful.
For over thirty years, thousands of Americans have traveled safely and without incident to North Korea to reunite with loved ones, engage in educational and cultural activities, and deliver life-saving humanitarian aid. From 2000 to 2017, an estimated 6,000 Korean Americans traveled to North Korea, many seeking to reunite with family members from whom they became separated due to the Korean War. Since the early 1990s, U.S. humanitarian organizations safely sent hundreds of aid workers to North Korea, including outside of the capital city of Pyongyang. These people-to-people exchanges and humanitarian activities are crucial to advancing the U.S. national interest and building trust with North Korea but have been largely halted as a result of the 2017 travel ban.
We urge the Biden administration to lift or amend the North Korea travel ban for these reasons:
1. First, it would fulfill decades of U.S. promises to allow Korean Americans to reunite with their family members in North Korea. An estimated 10 million Koreans became separated from their families as a result of the Korean War. In 2001 U.S. officials estimated that approximately 100,000 Korean Americans still had loved ones in North Korea. Days before his election, President Biden pledged to reunite “Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.” The United States has a moral obligation to facilitate these reunions as quickly as possible, as time is running out for many of these elderly Korean Americans. By sunsetting the 2017 travel ban, the Biden administration will help thousands of Korean Americans reunite with their loved ones and end the longest humanitarian crisis in the world.
2. Secondly, ending the travel ban will enable civil society efforts and people-to-people exchanges that will help break down barriers and build trust between the people of our two nations. For example, in 2015, representatives of Women Cross DMZ, a U.S.-based women’s peacebuilding organization, traveled to North Korea for a women’s peace symposium and peace walks. The historic meeting of American and North Korean women, which included retired U.S. Army Colonel and U.S. Diplomat Ann Wright and a five-star North Korean general, would not have otherwise been possible. These exchanges help transform 70 years of enmity between the peoples of two nations still technically at war and are vital to fulfilling U.S. commitments in the 2018 regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
3. Thirdly, ending the travel ban will help facilitate the repatriation of the remains of the U.S. servicemen in North Korea, particularly in negotiating permission for non-governmental research teams to access known Korean War U.S. air loss sites to learn the fate of still-missing crewmen. By ending the travel ban, a crucial non-governmental channel would reopen and contribute to building trust between the two nations, potentially advancing future negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.
4. Finally, ending the North Korea travel ban will allow U.S. humanitarian organizations to resume their work, enabling the delivery of life-saving aid to the most vulnerable populations in North Korea. For decades, reputable U.S. aid organizations with long-standing programs in North Korea were our strongest, most well-informed, and trusted channels of communication between the United States and North Korea. The travel ban, however, has greatly restricted and, at times, entirely shut down U.S.-based humanitarian and development projects in North Korea. While the State Department’s travel ban has exemptions for humanitarian and Red Cross workers, journalists, and those acting in the “national interest,” virtually every aid organization has reported that the process of applying for these Special Validation passports is cumbersome and unpredictable, greatly hindering their operations. The application process provides no clear timeline, and it can take up to 55 days for NGOs to receive a determination. This has undeniably obstructed vital work, causing delays in life-saving aid and treatment.
By lifting the U.S. travel ban to North Korea, the Biden administration would help heal the wounds of the 71-year-old Korean War and uphold the constitutionally protected right of travel.
Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to your timely response.
Christine Ahn, Executive Director, Women Cross DMZ
Joyce Ajlouny, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee
Mickey Bergman, on behalf of Governor Bill Richardson Center for Global Engagement
Abigail Disney, filmmaker, philanthropist and social activist
Rick Downes, President, Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs
Suzy Kim, Amnesty International USA (South) Korea Country Specialist
Orin O’Brien, Double Bass, New York Philharmonic (retired)
Kee B. Park, Director, Korea Health Policy Project, Harvard Medical School
Jack Rendler, Amnesty International USA (North) Korea Country Specialist
Chahee Stanfield, Founder and Executive Director, National Coalition for Divided Families
Gloria Steinem, author and activist
Ann Wright, US Army Colonel and US Diplomat (retired), Veterans for Peace
CC: Kurt Campbell, National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific
Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State
Kin Moy, Senior Bureau Official of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau
Sung Kim, US Special Representative for North Korea
Ian Brownlee, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Consular Affairs