Hamhung and Muslim Bans

My grandmother’s family is from the town of Hamhung.

It’s a bustling port town on the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula, with a current population of over 700,000. It’s best known now as the namesake for a common Korean turn of phrase; a famous story about the town recounts how the founder of the Choson Dynasty, whose sons fought bitter battles over succession, retired to Hamhung in the year 1400. When one of his sons sent envoys to try to reconcile with the father, the old king had them killed. (The town’s name is therefore invoked when describing somebody who leaves on a journey and never returns.)

If you’ve looked it up by now, you also know that Hamhung is also firmly within the present-day boundaries of North Korea. My grandmother’s family moved, in the 1920s, to China, largely to better situate themselves to help with the effort to liberate Korea from Japanese occupation—a Korea that at that point had not been divided in almost a thousand years (the final unification of a number of competing kingdoms occurred in the year 936). She and much of her family ended up, by circumstance, in present-day South Korea after World War II ended, but the DMZ created less than a decade later symbolizes the complete lack of exchange, both diplomatic and human/informational, that has happened between the two countries in the 64 years since.

The new Muslim ban, which has added Chad and North Korea (as well as encompassing Venezuelan diplomats), is far broader in scope than the original one. Although it does not invalidate any currently valid visas, it is both permanent and makes very few exceptions. Travel into the United States to see family is functionally prohibited for all included countries.

I don’t write this now because I have a personal connection to a country that has recently been added to the list. Indeed, direct North Korean travel to the United States is incredibly rare (and is mostly limited to researchers traveling to academic conferences). And we should question what the point of adding North Korea to the list is, particularly as the practical impact of its presence on the list is likely to be so minimal. (Is it in order to try to sneak the ban through the courts, to avoid a First Amendment freedom-of-religion challenge? Likely in part, yes. Is it also to continue to antagonize North Korea, as the United States has done for a solid twenty years, pushing us toward the brink we stand at now to score political points with a base hungry for an unnecessary war they will never have to see at their doorstep? Likely in part, yes.)

But the example of North Korea is instructive, not for its current stance with the United States, but for the human cost of a travel ban (which I’ve touched on before). Since the start of the Korean War, there has been virtually no civilian contact between North Korea and South Korea. The first semi-regular reunions between the two countries happened in 2000, during a period of relative de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula, fifty years after the last time these relatives could have seen each other. Over 116,000 South Koreans applied to be a part of those reunions; within a few months, 11% of them had already died.

The current president of South Korea has called for a new round of reunions, as 60,000 South Koreans, most over 80, are still waiting for a chance to meet their relatives for the first time in almost 70 years. (Over the course of 20 or so reunions, fewer than 10,000 South Koreans have been able to meet their relatives.)

The picture below is an AP photo from the most recent reunion, in 2015, and captures the moment that a 93-year-old mother meets her son, 72, for the first time since 1950, when he would have been seven years old. Implicit in their first meeting in 65 years is the idea that with such a long waiting list, it is a virtual certainty that it will be their last meeting as well.


My grandmother turns 93 in a couple weeks. Her life has been prosperous, and longer than most, and yet it will have to come to an end as well. And passing with her, and with the remaining members of her generation, will be a story of families torn apart, the vast majority never to meet again. And the only remaining reality will be of families on each side of the border, with perhaps an understanding that relatives exist on the other side, but with no face to attach to the idea. Indeed, as she will never visit Hamhung during the remainder of her life, I have come to terms with the idea that I may never be able to do so either.

And if further pictures of these reunions stir any sympathy in you at all, if you find the hundreds of thousands of Korean families split more or less permanently at all heartbreaking, then let’s talk about the literal millions of people in the United States who claim origin in one of the countries included in the current version of the Muslim ban, who are facing the same prospect.

And for what? An illusion that a ban makes us somehow safer, when no domestic terrorist incidents have been traced to any of the countries named in the ban? (Three quarters of terrorist attacks in the United States have been perpetrated by far-right extremists.) A further antagonism of countries, and of people, in parts of the world where they have known nothing but American antagonism?

Are we better than this? Our track record is spotty in recognizing humanity, but we should be better than this.

We cannot settle for less.

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