December 5, 2016

Divided Families Panel — by Elaine Lee

On Monday, November 21, Penn for Liberty in North Korea, Penn Korean Student Association, the Asian Law and Politics Society, and a non-governmental organization called Divided Families USA partnered to host an informational workshop on North Korean refugees: “Faces of the Divided Korea.” Numerous guest speakers formed a panel to engage in a discussion: Michael Lammbrau, founder of the Arirang Institute, Benjamin Silberstein, PhD candidate at Penn, and Daniel Lee, Korean Affairs Fellow of New York Representative Charles Rangel. The event began with a screening of a documentary on reunification of Korean families divided by the Korean War.

The documentary screening set the stage for discussion with the panelists, depicting heartbreaking separation of families and the difficulty of coordinating such reunifications due to absence of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea. Recordings of live interviews with reunited family members humanized the tragedy of family separation, showing the many difficulties not just in coordinating such reunifications and obtaining the funding for travel, but also in identifying actual family members and confirming that the right people were being set up to meet. The documentary also stressed the pressures of time in reunifying as many family members as possible, because many of those who were separated from their loved ones have significantly aged since the Korean War, which ended in 1953. Most importantly, the documentary revealed that there has been significant activism within the United States among Korean Americans, who care deeply about reunification of Korean families, have been working hard to secure funding for travel, and lobby their governments to pass a bill that would stress the humanitarian significance of working toward reuniting divided families.

The remainder of the event focused on raising awareness about H.Con.Res.40, a bill pushed forth by Divided Families USA. Daniel Lee moderated the discussion, as he is currently working in Washington, D.C. to supervise passage of the bill. Lee stressed the bipartisan and humanitarian aspects of the bill in the hopes that lack of contentiousness should ease the passing of the resolution and expedite reunification efforts, especially since the number of Korean Americans who have yet to reunite with their families in North Korea are declining rapidly. While questions from the audience raised concerns about actual enactment and engagement with North Korea, Lee emphasized the immediate need to first pass the bill through the House before any further steps.

Placing this issue of Korean family reunification in an international context, the speakers noted that humanitarian reunions of this sort can have implications for other refugee issues that the United States will need to address in future foreign policy. Not just a Korea issue, reunion of families remains a basic universal right, recognized by the United Nations. The most effective ways to address this moving forward are increased advocacy and awareness of both humanitarian issues in North Korea and the lack of support for reuniting Korean families, and mobilizing Korean-American interest to lobby Congress. Additionally, Lee stated that another next step would be to secure moderators for future reunions.

November 1, 2016

North Korea Roundtable – Reflections by John Grisafi

The James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies hosted a roundtable titled “Missiles, Nukes, Markets, Madman?: North Korea in 2016” on Wednesday, October 12, 2016.

The North Korea Roundtable panel, “Missiles, Nukes, Markets, Madman?,” discussed recent developments regarding North Korea in 2016 and the major issues in the larger topic of dealing with North Korea as a persistent and growing power which is considered a threat by some. The three panelists were Hyun-binn Cho (PhD candidate in Political Science and lecturer of “Introduction to International Relations” at Penn), Benjamin Katzeff-Silberstein (PhD candidate in History and co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch) and myself, John Grisafi (double-major in East Asian Languages & Civilizations and History at Penn and intelligence director at NK News; also this author). The panelists each covered a subject pertaining to North Korea in the big picture and in 2016 specifically.

Hyun-binn Cho began with “The North Korean Nuclear Conundrum,” explaining the international relations of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to Cho, the North Korean desire for nuclear weapons is – as with all potential proliferation cases – symptomatic of underlying security concerns, but differs in that there is an underlying political tension. North Korea, with or without nuclear weapons, will not accept existence as an inferior regime. According to Cho, the North Korean conundrum is fundamentally about a nation’s political division and ongoing war and getting rid of nuclear weapons will not eliminate North Korea’s significant conventional military forces, which have served as a deterrent to the South for decades.

I (John Grisafi) discussed “A More Credible Deterrent,” detailing the advancements North Korea has made in the past year on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. I explained how North Korea, over the past year (and more) has made meaningful advancements in the area of nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development. The country has tested previously untested missiles, potentially furthering its military reach and extending the coverage of its deterrent. Additionally, North Korea has developed more diverse weapon systems, making it more difficult for adversaries to counter or preempt the North’s nuclear forces, even making progress on developing a second-strike capability, which could someday allow North Korean nuclear forces to survive even a seemingly comprehensive preemptive strike against the country. Taken together with the North’s claims of  testing a “standardized warhead” this year, North Korea is making clear progress toward a more capable and credible deterrent force.

Finally, Ben Katzeff-Silberstein presented on “Why North Korea Is Not as Poor as You (might) Think,” explaining the current economic situation in North Korea and the minimal effectiveness of sanctions. According to Katzeff-Silberstein, the North Korean economy has been far less impacted by international sanctions than anticipated. The amount of trade with China through the Dandong-Sinuiji border crossing (where the greatest volume of Chinese-North Korean trade passes) remains almost unchanged since before sanctions were applied following the January 2016 nuclear test.

The general consensus of the panel can be understood to be that North Korea is more resilient and resourceful than expected. North Korea has not collapsed as many have been predicting for years. Conversely, North Korea is making progress on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles faster than anticipated. Defying expectations is the norm for North Korea.