Foreign Affairs, Governance, Human Rights

Travel to North Korea: Should it be Prohibited in the Aftermath of American Student’s Death?

The tragic death of Otto Warmbier has again raised the question of whether travel to North Korea ought to be prohibited by the United States government.

Otto Warmbier died shortly after returning home to his family in Ohio from North Korea in a condition medical officials in Cincinnati called “unresponsive wakefulness.” When he was returned to the U.S., North Korean officials said he had been in a coma for the past 14 months, though there was no attempt to explain why American officials or Swedish Embassy officials in Pyongyang (who deal with U.S. citizen issues for us in North Korea) were told nothing at all about his condition until a few days before he returned. There are still many questions about how he was treated by North Korean officials and what actually happened to him. Unfortunately, those questions may never be answered.

North Korea official news agency KCNA said on June 23rd that Otto Warmbier was not returned earlier because the United States never requested it. That claim is ridiculous. We made repeated requests for his release and for other Americans being held by the North Korean government repeatedly. The North Korean government refused to respond to our requests. The Swedish Government made daily requests to the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs for access to Mr. Warmbier and the other Americans being held and the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm called in the DPRK ambassador and made the request there.

Warmbier was in North Korea during the New Year’s holiday 2016 on a visit arranged by Young Pioneer Tours, a private commercial firm in Beijing that arranges group tours to North Korea. After Warmbier’s death, the company announced it will no longer allow Americans to join its tours to the North. This probably has little to do with concern for the safety and wellbeing of its travel clients, and much more to do with public relations and trying to salvage its reputation.

The State Department travel warnings have been quite explicit for some time: “The Department of State strongly warns U.S. citizens not to travel to North Korea/DPRK.” They “are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention” and North Korea has warned that U.S. citizens will be treated with “wartime law of the DPRK.” These warnings have not had the desired effect, and some have called for a ban on travel.

Prohibiting travel by Americans to North Korea has been talked about for some time, primarily on Capitol Hill. Arguments for a travel ban are (1) to protect the safety and wellbeing of American citizens; and (2) travel is a source of hard currency for the Kim regime which goes to the “royal economy” for imported French cognac and luxury automobiles for the young leader, as well as to fund nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The first argument against a travel ban is that contact with Americans is one of the few opportunities for information from the outside world to reach residents inside the hermit kingdom, and information undermines the official narrative that vicious, evil Americans hate North Korea and seek its destruction. Compassionate Americans provide humanitarian assistance.

The second concern is the difficulty of enforcing a ban. Travel to North Korea requires travel through third countries (usually China), and currently visas for Americans to travel to North Korea are handled through DPRK embassies in China and elsewhere. We have little ability to stop travel by Americans who get a visa in Beijing and then hop on an Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang. North Korean visas don’t necessarily have to be stamped in the passport, it can be done on a separate piece of paper and later removed. Credit Cards and other instruments for monetary transfer are already illegal and not used in the North; hence most transactions are in cash and very hard to trace.

There is no question that adventure tourism to North Korea is risky and ought to stop. Americans don’t need to visit Pyongyang to run in the annual marathon honoring the Kim family, which last year hosted 1,600 foreign runners, including a number of Americans. A visit to North Korea for the bragging rights for an exotic vacation destination has no real positive benefit to the DPRK and helps sustain a regime that is one of the most repressive on earth.

On the other hand, Americans who provide important medical assistance and other humanitarian and environmental assistance do play a positive role. When stringent, tough sanctions were imposed a year ago in response to the legislation for enhanced sanctions on the North, the executive order drafted by the Administration included exceptions for useful and worthy projects to engage with the DPRK.

We need to take that kind of approach in thinking about a travel ban. No travel for runners in the Pyongyang Marathon or for aging former pro-basketball players, but travel ought to continue for engagement in serious humanitarian, medical, educational, and environmental projects.