Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Clay Gilliland.
Americans with more courage than good sense can cross one destination off the itinerary – and Pyongyang can count on fewer bargaining chips as a result.
The U.S. will ban its citizens from traveling to North Korea effective 30 days from the ban’s publication in the Federal Register in late July. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that the decision was “due to mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement.”
The move follows the death of Otto Warmbier, a young American who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea in 2016. He was released back to his family after over a year in custody, during which he suffered severe brain injuries that left him comatose. He died days after arriving home. North Korea insisted his death was “a mystery.”
Yet the State Department is not reacting to Warmbier’s death alone. North Korea is currently holding three U.S. nationals, and at least 16 Americans have been detained over the past decade. Despite the State Department’s previous “strong warning” against traveling to North Korea, estimates put hundreds of Americans among the roughly 4,000 to 5,000 Western tourists who visit the country each year. The existing travel advisory warns American travelers that North Korea imposes “unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes” in the United States.
The new “geographical travel restrictions” from the State Department are not without precedent. Our government has invoked similar rules against travel to Iran, Iraq, Libya and Cuba in the past, though no such restrictions are currently active. State Department travel restrictions were also common during the Cold War. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as part of a broader focus on North Korea, made the decision that Americans face imminent danger by traveling to the country and invoked his powers to restrict travel accordingly.
As Warmbier’s case tragically illustrated, Americans who travel to North Korea gamble with their freedom and their lives. They also potentially put their government in a terrible position. North Korea has demonstrated that it is more than willing to use civilian detainees as hostages when dealing with another government, and not only that of the United States. Japan says several dozen of its nationals are currently held in North Korea, and the country is known to have detained a Canadian pastor and several South Korean missionaries as well.
While the State Department got there first, Congress has also considered taking action to restrict travel to North Korea. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., introduced a bill earlier this year to ban Americans from traveling to North Korea as tourists for at least five years. If the bill ultimately passes, the legislation will require Americans traveling to the country for other purposes to secure a license from the Treasury Department. And Young Pioneer Tours, the tour company Warmbier used, had already announced it would stop accepting Americans on North Korean tours because the risk was “too high.”
While determined individuals may still be able to make it to North Korea, the travel restrictions make clear that the U.S. government takes the threat to its citizens seriously. Matthew Bradley, the regional security director for the Americas at the travel safety firm International SOS and Control Risks, told The Washington Post, “There will still be people who risk it” despite the potential for detention by North Korea’s government or prosecution by the United States. Still, there are no direct travel connections between the two countries, and formally organized tours will almost certainly cease once the restrictions take effect. Tour company operators have suggested the restrictions will also reduce the willingness of other Western citizens to travel to North Korea, which is all to the good.
Given the relatively small number of Americans traveling to North Korea now, the ban is unlikely to have a large economic impact. But it sends a very clear political message – one that other hostage-taking governments would do well to heed. Once the ban takes effect, North Korea will be the only country American citizens are banned from visiting. However, as I have written before, the United States would be wise to consider a ban to Iran as well. At a minimum, the North Korean travel ban is a warning to Iran to let go of the hostages it is already holding.
Not only will the restrictions give Pyongyang fewer bargaining chips, but they will spare American families the potential heartbreak faced by the Warmbiers and others whose loved ones found themselves in a very wrong place that, under the current regime, never has a right time for tourism.