Should Americans Be Banned From Traveling to North Korea?

That’s a question Washington, tour groups, and adventure travelers are considering following a college student’s death.

The Yanggakdo International Hotel, left, in Pyongyang, where U.S. student Otto Warmbier was alleged to have removed a political poster from staff quarters. 

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP via Gett Images

The U.S. State Department urges Americans to avoid traveling to more than three dozen nations, including such troubled locales   as Libya, Cameroon, and Venezuela. Still, obtain a valid passport and permission from the ostracized nation, and you can go there relatively freely.

This freedom may soon be curtailed for those wishing to visit the most famous member of the club: North Korea. Following the death of a college student from Ohio who was held prisoner for 17 months in the reclusive nation, the U.S. is considering a full ban. The State Department has already warned Americans to avoid North Korea due to “serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may restrict citizens’ travel in response to Otto Warmbier’s June 19 death, a department spokeswoman said Tuesday, as three other Americans remain imprisoned there. Last week, Kim Jong Un’s government released Warmbier, 22, who was in a coma when he was flown home, suffering from severe brain injury.

U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona suggested that Americans who want to visit North Korea should sign a waiver to acknowledge the risk and the U.S.’s inability to intervene if they require assistance. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, relying on Sweden’s Pyongyang embassy as its “protective power” with the North Korean government.

“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 Tuesday.

Last month, two U.S. congressmen introduced the “North Korea Travel Control Act” which would require licenses for American tourism to, from, or within North Korea, with the intention that the U.S. would issue no such license. The State Department would retain the right to license other travel categories, such as religious or philanthropic trips, under the legislation from Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, and Representative Joe Wilson, a North Carolina Republican. The bill specifies financial penalties for travel firms that skirt the tourism ban.

Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea on March 16, 2016.
Photographer: Jon Chol Jin/AP PHoto

It’s unclear how many Americans travel each year to North Korea, as the State Department doesn’t require U.S. citizens to register their travel abroad. Most journey via China and there are no reporting requirements upon return, Schiff noted Wednesday in a telephone interview. The tour agency that organized Warmbier’s trip, Young Pioneer Tours, says about 4,500-5,000 Westerners visit North Korea each year, with about 1,000 of those from the U.S. “Sadly, there has been an increase in Westerners seeking the thrill of traveling to the Hermit Kingdom,” Wilson wrote in an opinion piece.

“We’ve seen over the past several years an abundance of tour programs that are facilitating what can best be called adventure travel to go to North Korea,” Schiff said. Their appeal? “Go to the most isolated, hermetically sealed authoritarian regime in the world.”

The Trump administration is weighing a response to Warmbier’s death, though many analysts consider military action risky and implausible given Kim Jong Un’s ability to launch a major attack on his neighbors. Warmbier’s death is “an outrage even by North Korean standards,” John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told Bloomberg News. “It does demand something that’s beyond the typical response. But what do you do? How do you punish North Korea? The instinctive response, such as a travel ban, would not punish the people who killed Otto Warmbier.”

Warmbier’s death will likely change the average adventurer’s assessment of how risky such trips are, said Wendy Simmons, a New York writer and photographer who traveled there and later wrote a book, My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth.

“The only way to foster communication between people is for people to meet,” said Simmons, who said she has visited almost 90 nations. “But in light of what’s gone on ... that’s a game changer.”

Ironically, if the U.S. curbs travel, North Korean propagandists will struggle with “a difficult story to sell their people about why Americans no longer come there,” Simmons said. “They literally think Americans want to come there because it’s the greatest country on the planet.”

Young Pioneer Tours said in an online post this week that it would stop sending U.S. citizens to North Korea. “The way his detention was handled was appalling, and a tragedy like this must never be repeated,” wrote the firm, which is based in Xi’an, China. In an email Wednesday, the tour company said it didn’t know what percentage of its business was from Americans.

Even if Trump bans U.S. tourism to North Korea, Schiff said legislation is still needed to impose financial penalties on firms that coordinate travel there. “The Secretary of State has the power to deny people passports to travel to North Korea but can’t prohibit them from traveling without a passport and can’t levy any penalties if they do anyway,” he said.

The travel ban bill, said Schiff, “wasn’t sparked by this tragedy, but it certainly has added momentum.”

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