By Robert King
On September 1st, the ban on travel to North Korea for holders of U.S. passports went into effect. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a month earlier that the ban would be imposed, but the initial statement indicated that there would be exemptions for humanitarian activities and journalists. Those exemptions, however, are limited and narrow.
The regulations provide four specific groups who will be granted permission to travel to the DPRK: Professional journalists whose reporting will be made available publicly; American citizens who are employed by the International Red Cross or the American Red Cross who are traveling to the North on an official Red Cross mission; individuals whose travel is justified by a “compelling humanitarian interest;” and individuals whose travel is “otherwise in the national interest.”
Not only are the categories tightly limited, but the State Department has not made the application process easy. The first step in receiving permission to use a U.S. passport to go to North Korea is to request permission with supporting documentation. The regulations do not indicate how long it will require for a decision, but there is no evidence that such requests will get expedited treatment. If the request is denied, there is no appeal. If the request is approved, the individual will then have to apply separately for a special U.S. passport. To get this special validated passport apparently requires a new passport application with the appropriate fees. The U.S. passport with the DPRK travel exception will be valid only for a single trip, and any subsequent travel will require a new travel permit application and a new U.S. specially validated passport.
American citizens involved in humanitarian and educational programs in the DPRK left North Korea prior to the effective date of the new travel requirements. Leaders of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) have expressed concerns about the impact of the travel ban on their humanitarian and assistance programs.
With the imposition of the travel ban, it is worth considering the factors that led to this decision and its potential consequences.
The initial decision to impose the travel ban was largely the outgrowth of the tragic death of American college student Otto Warmbier after he was detained, tried, spent 17 months imprisoned in the North, and died shortly after being returned to the United States in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.” He died in mid-June, and the travel ban was announced six weeks later. State Department official travel warnings for the DPRK, issued well before Otto Warmbier was detained, bluntly said “Do not travel to North Korea,” but there was no prohibition on travel.
Over the last decade or so, some twenty Americans have been detained by the DPRK, in most cases for reasons that are consistent with North Korean laws, but not with those of democratic societies like the United States. These detained Americans required considerable effort by American diplomats to seek their release from the North, and in some cases their release required visits to the DPRK by former presidents Clinton and Carter and other senior American officials.
There was frustration in Washington over using U.S. diplomatic resources to seek the release of Americans in North Korea when there were questions about the benefit of the travel in the first place. Also, there was concern that tourist dollars were being used to fund DPRK military programs and the leader’s lavish lifestyle.
A second element which likely encouraged the decision on the travel ban was the growing American frustration of dealing with the DPRK’s illicit nuclear and missile programs. Over the past year the ramp-up of missile tests as well as continued nuclear weapon development has led to a growing sense of urgency. At the same time, the options available to contain the North are limited. American tourist revenue is a small source of funding for the military, but cutting off the revenue might be helpful.
Americans taking a North Korean tour to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon serves little benefit other than to give adventurous Americans bragging rights. The DPRK receives significant revenue from such travel.
There are, however, significant but intangible benefits to the United States from the humanitarian efforts of private American citizens, and the travel ban will significantly reduce American NGO efforts.
American NGOs help undermine the DPRK’s oft repeated charge of “American hostility.” The vicious brutal image North Koreans have of Americans is softened for those North Koreans who deal directly with Americans (though the Koreans are carefully vetted and monitored). Furthermore, contact with Americans helps get external information to North Koreans otherwise unable to access information about the outside world. In a country where all information is tightly controlled by the Pyongyang government, even such limited contact with Americans provides information that undermines government information controls. Such information helps pry open a tightly closed society.
Another non-political benefit is the good that is done by these American NGOs. North Korea is a poor country whose standard of living has more in common with sub-Saharan Africa than its Asian neighbors. (UN Per capita income figures for 2015 place DPRK at 179 of 195 countries, while South Korea is number 31. North Korea is below Sierra Leone and Rwanda, but above Uganda in the UN ranking.) There is no question that the poverty and living standards are the result of regime mismanagement, and its use of scarce resources for military expenditures rather than for the well-being of the people. Clearly, the regime is responsible.
The North Korean people suffer because of their leaders, but they are not responsible for the totalitarian regime’s policies. American NGOs provide help dealing with humanitarian issues such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis—which benefits not only infected North Koreans, but also neighboring populations in China, South Korea and Russia, which could be infected if the disease is not controlled. These humanitarian and aid projects are funded through the generosity of many Americans who contribute to these efforts and other Americans who carry out them out.
It is difficult to see that these stringent restrictions on American NGOs engaged in humanitarian engagement in the North will have benefits that justify ending the benefits they provide.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from (stephan)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.