In the summer of 2017 Rex Tillerson, during his tenure as Secretary of State for the first 13 months of the Trump administration, authorized a “Geographical Travel Restriction” prohibiting U.S. citizens from traveling “into, through or in North Korea.” The travel prohibition became effective on September 1, 2017, and it was valid for one year. That same travel ban was extended annually for the following three years by Mike Pompeo, who subsequently served as Trump’s Secretary of State (2018-2021). The last extension of the travel ban was for the one-year period from September 1, 2020, to September 1, 2021.*
A number of significant changes were made in U.S. foreign policy when President Joe Biden assumed office in January 2021. The United States announced it would resume participation in the UN Human Rights Council, and the U.S. would seek election to the Council. On the day he took the oath of office, Biden overturned the Trump policy known as the “Muslim ban,” which prohibited travel to the United States of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries.
One of the policies of the previous administration that Biden did not reverse was the Trump ban on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea. The ban was never a total prohibition on travel, but special exemption for travel to North Korea was allowed only under very limited circumstances—for journalists whose reporting is publicly available, U.S. citizens who work for or represent the Red Cross on a specific mission for the organization, individuals whose travel was “justified by compelling humanitarian considerations,” or travel that is “otherwise in the national interest.”
Receiving official U.S. government validation to travel to North Korea involved bureaucratic headaches as well as time and effort. It required purchasing another U.S. passport valid only for a single trip to the North, submitting a lengthy application justifying the travel to North Korea, and all this involved significant costs for humanitarian organizations.
Advocates for Lifting the North Korea Travel Ban
The current extension of the travel ban expires on September 1 unless it is explicitly extended by the Secretary of State. That deadline and a required decision from the Biden Administration has provoked a great deal of interest and discussion. In mid-August, a number of humanitarian and advocacy groups met with State Department officials to present a letter arguing that the ban should be lifted or allowed to expire. The groups behind these calls for ending the travel ban are a network of organizations and individuals called Let Individuals Freely Travel (LIFT), though its focus is not travel in general, but specifically to permit travel to North Korea.
Organizations involved in providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea have been particularly disadvantaged by the blanket travel ban since it was imposed in 2017. These include organizations which provide aid to North Korea—medical expertise, medications, and assistance; technological and business training; know-how and small scale aid with seeds or livestock semen to help increase agricultural output and food production; education assistance, particularly in the English language; and others kinds of technical aid. There has been no large-scale provision of food assistance for many years. Presence in the country and contact with North Koreans are essential components for success of these efforts. The North Korean government has been interested in working with many of these U.S.-based groups and some have relationships that extend back many years. The travel ban has been a particular obstacle for all of these private U.S. humanitarian efforts.
A second group of individuals and organizations that are calling for lifting the travel ban are Korean Americans who have family living in the North whom they have not seen for decades. They have not been able to travel freely to visit family members in the North, but they have been increasingly vocal in calling for organized family reunions. U.S. Congressional interest in divided North Korean family reunions has grown over the last few years. The House of Representatives adopted legislation introduced by Congresswoman Grace Meng (New York) in 2020 and 2021, and this Congressional interest reflects the Korean America community’s heightened interest in the issue.
Family reunions between Korean Americans and North Korean relatives are particularly difficult because of the effort by Pyongyang to use humanitarian issues for political leverage. North Korean citizens are not permitted to leave the country to meet with relatives in South Korea or anywhere else. Any reunions allowed must be held in the North, though the number permitted has been very small and infrequent. Thus far, the few reunions have only involved relatives of North Koreans living in South Korea.
There is serious concern in Pyongyang about such family contacts undermining North Korean efforts to maintain control of its population. The bottom line is that the travel ban imposed by the United States since 2017 is not the reason such family reunions do not take place. The far greater obstacle is that the North does not want such contact between its own citizens and their family members living in the United States.
Reasons the Trump Administration Banned Travel to North Korea
In March 2016, almost a year before the United States issued its ban on travel by U.S. Citizens to North Korea, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution imposing economic and other sanctions against North Korea in response to the North’s fourth nuclear weapon test and a submarine-launched missile test. Eight months later, additional sanctions were imposed by the UN Security Council following the North’s fifth nuclear test.
Some analysts considered the travel ban as part of the sanctions effort to put economic pressure on the North because of its nuclear and missile testing. Tourism was a growing source of revenue for Pyongyang, estimated in 2015 to be between $30.6 million to $43.6 million annually, with an estimated 95,000 Chinese and 5,000 visitors from other countries. North Korean officials made it clear that expanding tourism was an economic priority.
Although reducing travel to North Korea was consistent with the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and other unilateral United States sanctions, the principal reason for the travel curb was the detention of U.S. citizens by the North for what were considered minor issues in order to create difficulties for Washington. The case that galvanized U.S. anger was the imprisonment of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after he was returned to the United States in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” following 17 months of detention in North Korea. He had joined a package tour to North Korea around New Year’s Day 2016, but he was prevented from leaving the country, tried in a widely televised court proceeding a few months later, and sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence that was completely disproportionate to his supposed “crime.”
It was clear that the detention of U.S. citizens traveling in North Korea and, in particular, the death of Otto Warmbier, was the principal reason for the travel ban. The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016—which was adopted by the U.S. Congress, after the 2016 nuclear and missile tests and following Warmbier’s detention—required the State Department to issue frequently updated travel warnings regarding travel to North Korea, including explicit details of “North Korea’s detention of U.S. citizens,” “information on North Korea’s past and present detention and abduction of citizens of the United States, South Korea, or Japan,” and “information about the nature of the North Korean regime.” At the time the legislation was adopted, Otto Warmbier was still detained against his will in North Korea, but it was before his return to the United States and his untimely death.
Secretary of State Tillerson issued the travel ban in July 2017 a few months after the Trump Administration assumed office. Otto Warmbier died on June 19, 2017, a few days after his highly publicized return to the United States. The travel ban was announced just a few days later in early July 2017 with an effective date of September 1, 2017. Clearly the safety of U.S. citizens and their detention without appropriate legal and humanitarian standards was the principal factor behind that decision.
Balancing Benefits of Humanitarian and Educational Assistance with U.S. Citizens Being Held Hostage
Humanitarian and educational assistance provided by private U.S. organizations to North Korea is unquestionably beneficial the country. These private groups have consistently been able to help alleviate humanitarian needs. But there is also a political benefit to the United States in reducing the hostile attitudes toward the U.S. because of caring Americans providing aid and training to North Koreans in areas of medical care, food, nutrition, and education.
Permitting U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea for humanitarian and educational activities has not necessarily led to increased detention or harm to U.S. citizens in the North. Most of the U.S. detainees have been tourists. U.S. detainees generally have not been involved with long-established humanitarian and educational organizations undertaking assistance projects in the North. Lifting the travel ban for U.S. citizens who are working with these established groups would allow the benefits of their humanitarian efforts, but is unlikely to lead to U.S. citizens being detained. Continuing the prohibition for adventure tourism to North Korea by U.S. Citizens would not have significant negative consequences. Some runners will be unhappy not to have the souvenir T-shirt with the inscription “I Ran in the Pyongyang Marathon,” but no U.S. runners will be hand-harvesting potatoes in the outskirts of Pyongyang for a couple of years.
The Difficulty of Family Reunions for Korean Americans
The growing interest of Korean Americans in meeting with family members from North Korea is unfortunately not easily resolved. The Kim regime has no interest in welcoming Korean Americans to the North, and in fact probably sees serious risks in raising discontent when North Korean relatives meet their American cousins. It only highlights the gap between the wealth of the capitalist migrants to America and the harsh living conditions of those living in the workers’ paradise that is North Korea.
Family reunions have been important for South Korean governments. The government of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and his successor Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) and President Moon Jae-in (2017-) were able to work out in-person meetings (all in North Korea), and these contacts involved over twenty thousand individuals having contact with relatives in North Korea. A smaller number of individuals who were permitted to exchange letters with relatives on a single occasion. No such meetings or contacts took place during the conservative presidencies of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Gyun-hye (2013-2017), which is a clear indication that for North Korea these meetings are political not humanitarian. Korean Americans were not able to participate in these family reunion activities.
Unfortunately, the aging of the population with family members in North Korea, means that there is an urgency in trying to arrange family meetings. But there has been little success in dealing with the North on these issues. Lifting the travel ban will have little impact. The problem is the unwillingness of Pyongyang to permit its people to have contact with their relatives still living in the North, and the desire to use this and other contacts for political leverage with the United States.
The Menace of COVID-19 Means Little Will Change Regardless of What Happens with the U.S. Travel Ban
North Korea has been called the “hermit nation” because of its self-imposed isolation, but the isolation that has been imposed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is even worse. In late January 2020 the country closed its borders, and it has taken draconian steps to prevent contagion because of its weak medical system. A large portion of foreign diplomats have left the North, and departing diplomats are frequently not replaced at this time. A “collective exit” of diplomats has been reported. A strict quarantine was imposed upon the city of Kaesong and the surrounding area when a re-defector surreptitiously crossed the border from South Korea in order to return to Kaesong. Eight Russian diplomats in Pyongyang who were returning to Russia, were forced to walk across the railroad bridge over the Tumen River with their baggage to cross into Russia.
The number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea in 2020 dropped sharply, reaching the smallest number since defectors began fleeing to the South in the late 1990s, and border security has been enhanced with even tougher instructions for guards to shoot to kill. North Koreans have reportedly been shot for simply entering the buffer zone near the border. Shortly after tighter border controls were imposed, a South Korean official was shot and his body burned after his boat entered North Korean territorial waters.
North Korean policies on the COVID-19 pandemic make it quite clear that the North is unlikely to allow U.S. citizens, or visitors of any other nationality, to enter the North as long as the pandemic continues to rage. Action by the United States to ease the travel ban is not likely to have any impact on allowing U.S. citizens to visit North Korea for humanitarian and educational purposes or to reunite with family members in the North. Any change will have to await significant easing of the pandemic.
*After this post was published the U.S. State Department announced that it had extended the travel ban to North Korea.
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 (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Uri Tours’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.