The Trump administration plans to prohibit Americans from traveling to North Korea, the State Department announced Friday, citing serious risks of arrest and imprisonment in the isolated totalitarian state.
The ban, first disclosed by tour groups that specialize in travel to North Korea, comes in apparent retaliation for the detention of U.S. citizens there and the death of a young tourist who was held for nearly 18 months before being flown home in a coma.
Two tour companies, Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, said they were told the ban would be formally declared July 27 and would take effect a month later.
“The safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas is one of our highest priorities,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said late Friday morning in announcing the forthcoming ban. “Due to mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] has authorized a Geographical Travel Restriction on all U.S. citizen nationals’ use of a passport to travel in, through, or to North Korea.”
The ban would make U.S. passports invalid for travel to North Korea, although a waiver system would allow Americans to obtain passports with a special validation for visits to the country. The restrictions will take effect 30 days after a notice is published in the Federal Register next week, Nauert said.
Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from Ohio, used China-based Young Pioneer Tours to travel to North Korea in January 2016, only to be arrested on charges of attempting to steal a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor. He died June 19 at age 22, six days after being released in a coma and flown home to Cincinnati. Three other U.S. citizens remain imprisoned in North Korea.
“We have just been informed that the US government will no longer be allowing US citizens to travel to the DPRK (North Korea),” Young Pioneer Tours said in a statement. “It is expected that the ban will come into force within 30 days of July 27th. After the 30 day grace period any US national that travels to North Korea will have their passport invalidated by their government.”
Koryo issued a similar statement, saying that after the ban takes effect, “it will no longer be legal for anyone travelling on a US passport to visit the DPRK as a tourist.” North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.
Young Pioneer Tours announced last month that it would no longer take Americans to North Korea, saying that Warmbier’s death prompted a reevaluation. “Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high,” the company said.
The U.S. government had discouraged Americans from traveling to North Korea but had not issued an outright ban.
Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist for the Eurasia Group, said a travel ban would be far more effective than the increasingly dire travel warnings issued by the State Department in the last year. The warnings have been aimed in part at deterring Americans from traveling to North Korea to slake their curiosity about the strange Stalinist state sometimes called “the hermit kingdom.”
“American citizens need to hear very strong signals about how dangerous it is to travel to North Korea,” he said. “It closes an important loophole to eliminate things like Otto Warmbier going to North Korea for adventure travel.”
Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the travel prohibition would be stronger if it came from the Treasury Department with steep financial fines. But he said a travel limitation is necessary to keep more Americans from being arrested by the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un and used to extract concessions from the U.S. government.
“North Korea uses these hostages as bargaining chips,” he said. “They likely want some high-profile American to go to North Korea to seek the release of the other three still there. They want to use these Americans to limit the Trump administration’s ability to impose sanctions against the regime. So this is a good step forward.”
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said a travel ban would not have a huge financial impact on North Korea. But he said it was needed after the imprisonment and ultimate death of Warmbier.
“Americans cherish our God-given right to do stupid things,” he said. “But at times it’s necessary to do something like this. When an American is arrested, it inevitably involves the U.S. government. They have to send a senior or former government official there, and there’s always concern there’s going to be a quid pro quo on diplomatic or economic benefits in return.”
The reported July 27 announcement date coincides with North Korea’s “Victory Day,” on which the isolated communist regime marks the 1953 Korean War armistice with elaborate pageantry.
Under U.S. law, the secretary of state can impose a “geographical travel restriction” if a country is at war with the United States, if armed hostilities are underway or if travel there poses a danger to the safety of U.S. citizens. Anyone who violates a such a restriction can be prosecuted for misuse of a passport.
Currently, no other country is off-limits to U.S. passport holders. Travel restrictions were in place against Iran from 1987 to 1997, Iraq from 1991 to 2003, Libya from 1981 to 2004 and Cuba from 1963 to 1977.
Unlike Warmbier, none of the three Korean Americans known to remain imprisoned in North Korea entered the country as tourists. One is a businessman who formerly lived in Northern Virginia, and two had taught at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a school attended by the children of North Korea’s elite.
The longest-held American is Kim Dong-chul, a businessman who was working in a special economic zone in North Korea when he was arrested in October 2015 and accused of being a South Korean spy.
Kim Sang-duk, a 58-year-old U.S. citizen also known as Tony Kim, was teaching accounting at the university. The first American to be detained since President Trump took office, he was arrested at the Pyongyang airport in April while trying to fly to China with his wife. He was accused of unspecified hostile criminal acts.
Similar vague charges were lodged against Kim Hak-song, another teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, who was arrested in May as he was about to leave North Korea.
As of May, the university employed about 40 Americans, most of them ethnic Koreans.
In recent years, tour companies have reported that roughly 800 to 1,200 Americans have visited North Korea annually.
In all, about 5,000 Western tourists have visited North Korea each year.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · William Branigin, Carol Morello