The United States will ban Americans from traveling to North Korea in the coming weeks due to the “serious risk of arrest and long-term detention,” the U.S. State Department said Friday, a month after U.S. college student Otto Warmbier died following his imprisonment by the isolated nation.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had authorized a “Geographical Travel Restriction” on all U.S. nationals’ use of a passport for travel to North Korea.
“Once in effect, U.S. passports will be invalid for travel to, through and in North Korea, and individuals will be required to obtain a passport with a special validation in order to travel to or within North Korea,” she said.
Nauert added that the restriction would be published in the Federal Register next week.
It “will be implemented 30 days after publication of the Federal Register notice announcing the restriction,” she said, adding that Americans who wanted to travel to North Korea “for certain limited humanitarian or other purposes” could apply for special passports.
Two travel operators, including China-based Koryo Tours, which bills itself as the biggest such company among a handful of firms offering trips to North Korea, earlier said they had been notified of the ban by the Swedish Embassy, which handles U.S. affairs in the North.
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the North and relies on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang as its “protective power” with the North Korean government.
The other firm, Young Pioneer Tours, which took Warmbier to North Korea on his fateful trip and is also headquartered in China, said in a statement on its website that it, too, had been notified of the looming ban.
“We have just been informed that the U.S. government will no longer be allowing U.S. citizens to travel to the DPRK (North Korea),” the firm said in its statement.
“It is expected that the ban will come into force within 30 days of July 27th,” it said. “After the 30 day grace period any U.S. national that travels to North Korea will have their passport invalidated by their government.”
North Korea marks the anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War on July 27, a national holiday in the communist country.
Foreign tourists, including Americans, are allowed to visit the North but must go with a tour company. U.S. citizens must take a plane to the country, with the vast majority of all nationalities traveling through Beijing. Travel is strictly limited once in the North.
Under the ban, however, visitors could still cheat to enter the North, according to Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former U.S. Treasury official.
“Cheating the travel ban is a question of implementation,” he said. “What safeguards will State put in place to prevent cheating?”
U.S. nationals, Ruggiero said, would be gaming the system at the risk of losing their passports and other penalties. “People will have to weigh those consequences,” he added.
Soft power chance lost?
Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours, told The Japan Times that his company, which takes the most Americans to the country, had been notified directly by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang.
Cockerell said the ban would be a “pity,” adding that it would have implications beyond just ending American participation in the tours. Tourists from other countries, he said, would likely be “put off” by the move.
And while the ban would likely be bad for business, Cockerell said it would cut off a key chance for North Koreans to see Westerners and Americans outside of the regime’s portrayals in its propaganda.
“Every portrayal in the North Korean media of foreigners, especially Americans, is really, really negative — to a degree that we would consider comical,” he said.
“Now, nobody will interact with any Americans. They will only see propaganda about Americans. This is the information they are given and this is what most people buy into,” he added. “It’s a pity. It’s a soft power opportunity that has been thrown away.”
Mintaro Obe, a former U.S. diplomat working on Asia policy, said the argument that tourism could lead to a softening of views of Americans was based on false presumptions.
“I don’t agree with the ‘soft power’ argument at all as North Koreans who are exposed to Americans are usually in Pyongyang, where elites in good standing with the regime live,” Obe said. “Minders are present throughout interactions,” meaning Americans aren’t allowed to roam around freely, meeting ordinary North Koreans.
According to Sue Mi Terry, a former senior analyst on North Korea at the CIA and currently managing director for Korea at the Bower Group Asia, any attempt by visiting Americans to share information about the outside world “would get everyone involved arrested.”
“So ending their travel would not have any impact on ordinary North Koreans,” Terry said.
Western tourism to North Korea first began to grow around 2009, according to tour operators. Most travel agencies estimate there are now between 4,000 to 6,000 such visitors each year, including 800 to 1,000 Americans.
Ban comes after Warmbier death
News of the ban comes just over a month to the date when Warmbier died at the age of 22 in the U.S., less than a week after being released by the North in a coma.
Prior to his release, Warmbier had been serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for “anti-state” acts — he allegedly tried to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel — during a short trip there at the end of 2015. The University of Virginia student was arrested on Jan. 2, 2016, and sentenced in March that year.
Warmbier had been comatose for more than a year, since shortly after a final public appearance at his show trial in Pyongyang, according to North Korean officials who claimed he contracted botulism and was given a sleeping pill, from which he never woke up.
His parents reject this claim, saying that he had instead been subjected to “awful torturous mistreatment” by the North Koreans. U.S. doctors who examined him said they uncovered no traces of botulism or beatings.
In the North’s first comments after Warmbier’s death, state media called his passing “a mystery” and labeled the country as “the biggest victim of this incident.”
Three other Americans are still believed to be held by the North: Kim Sang-duk, who also goes by the name Tony Kim, and Kim Hak-song — both academics who worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology — and businessman Kim Dong Chul.
A Canadian pastor and three South Korean nationals who were doing missionary work are also being held in the country. Japan says North Korea has also detained at least several dozen of its nationals, but Pyongyang either denies this or claims those held have long since died.
Washington has accused Pyongyang of holding American nationals as bargaining chips in negotiations with the United States over the country’s nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang has conducted a spate of missile tests this year — including one of an intercontinental ballistic missile believed to be capable of striking parts of the U.S.
Likely more important than any economic effects the ban may have on the North, it is being implemented “to prevent Pyongyang from seizing more Americans as bargaining chips,” Terry said.
“The North has long played this game to its advantage, taking Americans prisoner and only freeing them after humiliating the U.S. and extracting some concessions, even if only high-level visits to the North by American envoys,” she said.
“There is no good reason why the U.S. should cooperate with this protection racket by providing a steady supply of hostages.”
In May, the U.S. issued a travel warning for North Korea, strongly urging its citizens not to travel to the country.
The North “imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States and threatens U.S. citizen detainees with being treated in accordance with ‘wartime law of the DPRK,’ ” the State Department said in the warning.
It noted that at least 16 U.S. citizens had been detained in the North over the last decade, including “those who traveled independently and those who were part of organized tours.”
Prior to Warmbier’s death, Reps. Joe Wilson and Adam Schiff had sponsored a bipartisan bill to outlaw most U.S. travel to North Korea for five years. The legislation would ban tourism travel altogether and require Americans who do visit the country to get a license from the Treasury Department.
That bill was sent before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in late May and is scheduled for markup on July 27.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested after Warmbier’s death that Americans who want to visit North Korea should sign a waiver to acknowledge the risk and Washington’s inability to intervene if they require assistance.
“If people are that stupid that they still want to go to that country then at least they assume the responsibility for their welfare,” McCain said at the time.