11/08/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Fate of North Korean Orphans Lies in Hands of U.S. Senate


Children, some as young as three years old, scurry into the shadows to elude Chinese authorities who routinely round up and deport North Korean orphans.

American families stand ready to adopt these children, who are among the most vulnerable in the world, and bring them into the fold of their families, but the U.S Senate is standing between them, refusing to move legislation to facilitate adoption.

Although the House of Representatives passed the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act, a critical piece of legislation, on September 11, 2012, which compels the State Department to devise a plan that enables U.S. citizens to adopt orphans from North Korea, the U.S. Senate has failed to act.

Who are these kids?
North Korean orphans are among the most vulnerable children in the world, especially those who have become refugees in neighboring countries like China, Mongolia, Thailand and other Southeast Asia, nations where they have no legal status and are at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking.

These children, known as "stateless orphans," number somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.

The U.S. State Department has reported that many orphans living in China are the children of North Korean mothers, themselves trafficked. When the mothers are deported back to North Korea, their children are left behind.

Others are orphans who have escaped from North Korea, fleeing starvation and impoverishment to border countries, like China.

How U.S. legislation can help

The legislation that passed the House and is simmering in the Senate would compel the U.S. Secretary of State along with the Department of Homeland Security to devise a plan that would address some of the barriers that currently prevent Americans from adopting from North Korea.

Strained relations between the U.S. and North Korean governments certainly play a part in the current status quo, but so too does the fact that North Korea has failed to ratify the Hague Treaty Convention, an international standard of adoption guidelines designed to protect children that was first adopted in 1993.

The proposed legislation directs the State Department to present tangible solutions to make intercountry adoption possible between the U.S. and North Korea -- even if the latter refuses to sign The Hague -- to help these stateless orphans and other refugee children.

The legislation goes on to call for the State Department to tear down barriers that currently prevent families from adopting orphans from North Korea and other nations that have not signed the Hague.

The Senate's failure to act
Although the U.S House moved quickly to pass the legislation that would set forth a clear path to have these children become eligible for adoption, the U.S. Senate has been true to its reputation as the cooling saucer of the House's hot tea refusing to move the bill for a vote.

Back in February of 2011, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), together with two cosponsors, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) introduced bipartisan legislation but although it has been read twice and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations no action has been taken.

There is urgency to this legislation. It tasks the State Department with issuing a report with recommendations to Congress within 180 days of its enactment. If the Senate votes favorably in the coming weeks, Americans may be permitted to open their homes to these orphans in 2013.

This is no small matter. The fate of thousands of children rest upon the U.S. Senate getting this right.