Biden’s Decision to Renew Trump-Era Travel Ban Disappoints Korean Americans, Humanitarian Groups

For immediate release

September 1, 2021

Contact: Kathleen Richards

Korean Americans and humanitarian groups expressed anger and disappointment with the decision by the US State Department to maintain the travel ban to North Korea for another year. This means that US policy will continue to undermine family reunifications, the delivery of lifesaving humanitarian aid, and people-to-people exchanges and peace-building efforts, according to members of LIFT (Let Individuals Freely Travel), a national campaign to lift the US travel ban to North Korea. 

Imposed in 2017, the travel ban prohibits U.S. citizens from traveling to, in, or through North Korea. No other country is subject to a similar ban by the United States, and only the U.S. and South Korea prohibit their citizens from traveling to North Korea. Consequently, family members separated during the Korean War remain isolated from relatives in North Korea, humanitarian workers are unable to pursue their lifesaving endeavors, and Americans from all walks of life are blocked from engaging in people-to-people exchanges that further peace and understanding.

“I’m deeply disappointed in this outcome,” said Ji-Yeon Yuh, Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University and Co-coordinator of the LIFT campaign. “The Biden administration’s decision to keep the travel ban to North Korea means that Korean Americans will remain separated from their families, urgent humanitarian assistance won’t reach North Koreans who need it most, and peacebuilding efforts and civilian exchanges will be blocked. It’s unfortunate that the Biden administration has chosen to maintain this restrictive Trump-era policy when it’s not only unnecessary, but actively harmful to so many.”

“I have a brother, sister, cousin, and aunts in North Korea. I know where they are, but I cannot visit them. One of my cousins has lung cancer, and the other one has tuberculosis,” said Choon Lim, a Korean American and member of the LIFT campaign who has not been able to see his family in North Korea since the U.S. travel ban went into effect in 2017. He says he worries about them and wonders who is still alive. “I am now 75 years old. I do not know how many more years I have left. I wish to see them again, sooner than later.” 

“The Korean American community was not heard today,” said Hyun Lee, National Campaign and Advocacy Strategist of Women Cross DMZ and an organizer of the LIFT campaign. “It’s tragic that thousands of Korean families that have been separated for 70 years due to the ongoing Korean War will continue to be kept divided.” 

“Lifting the travel ban would allow us to do critical, lifesaving work that will also let North Koreans know Americans as caring people, people they can understand,” said Joy Yoon, co-founder of Ignis Community, an international NGO that aids in the healthy development of North Korean children through medicine and nutrition.

While current US policy allows humanitarian workers and others acting in the “national interest” to apply for Special Validation Passports, Yoon said this process is laborious and time-consuming. Furthermore, the frequent denial of applications has discouraged most people from even applying, and the new modifications appear to do little to lessen the burdensome process and cost of applying for the Special Validation Passport. 

“There’s a sense of urgency to this issue,” said Dr. Kee Park, faculty at Harvard Medical School and the director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association. “This is not something that will work itself out over time because people’s lives are at stake.” 

“One of the most unfortunate consequences of the travel ban to North Korea is that civil society peacebuilding efforts have come to a halt,” said Christine Ahn, Executive Director of Women Cross DMZ. “Had the travel ban been in effect in 2015, our historic crossing of the Demilitarized Zone and meetings with North Korean women wouldn’t have been possible. These activities are crucial to breaking down barriers, building trust, and promoting understanding.”

Members of the LIFT campaign sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on August 2, 2021, and met with Biden administration officials to urge them to lift the ban. While disappointed in the outcome, LIFT organizers say they will continue to call on the Biden Administration to lift the ban entirely. 

The LIFT campaign is a joint initiative of the Korea Peace Network, the Korea Peace Now! Grassroots Network, and Peace Treaty Now–national networks that organize for permanent peace in Korea.