By Mark Tokola
According to news reports, the State Department will soon publish a new regulation to ban Americans from visiting North Korea for tourism. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on July 21, “Once in effect, U.S. passports will be invalid for travel to, through and in North Korea, and individuals will be required to obtain a passport with a special validation in order to travel to or within North Korea.” It appears the special validation exception is intended to allow the small number of U.S. humanitarian workers to continue their work in North Korea. There will be a 30-day period after the ban is officially published in the Federal Register before it comes into effect to allow time for Americans in North Korea to depart.
The State Department has made clear that the justification for the ban is “mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention,” following student Otto Warmbier’s year-long detention in North Korea and his death on June 19. Three American citizens continue to be held in North Korea. The State Department has long cautioned against Americans travelling to North Korea because of the U.S. government’s inability to provide protective services in a country in which it has no Embassy or Consulate. But that has not dissuaded several hundred Americans from visiting North Korea every year, usually by means of European travel agencies that offer group tours.
Those who have advocated for a travel ban on North Korea have given reasons other than personal safety. One is to deprive the North Korean government of the money it makes from tourism. North Korea charges a great deal for the privilege of visiting their country, and that money goes into government coffers. Advocates of a travel ban say that tourism revenue directly or indirectly supports both North Korea’s weapons programs and its pervasive system of human rights abuses. Another reason for a ban would be to prevent North Korea from seizing hostages to gain diplomatic leverage against the U.S. In the past, North Korea has released American prisoners only in exchange for visits by high-level, current or former U.S. government officials.
Opponents of a travel ban have argued that people-to-people contacts can help change how North Koreans see America. Even casual contacts with North Koreans, under this theory, will help counter North Korean propaganda that all Americans should be seen as hostile war-mongers. Some also oppose all U.S. government travel bans on the general principle that American citizens should have the freedom to travel where they choose; travel restrictions are an abridgment of civil liberties. As a legal matter, the Supreme Court settled this question in the 1965 Zemel v Rusk decision when it upheld the State Department’s power to restrict the use of U.S. passports to travel to Cuba. A final reason to oppose a ban is that it could prove difficult to enforce. If an American joins a travel group from outside of the United States, to what lengths would the U.S. government go to punish that individual? How would it even monitor the travels of such individuals?
Beginning in 1968, U.S. passports included a list of countries to which the passport holder could not travel: North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, and Cuba. Those restrictions were eventually dropped and there currently are no countries which a U.S. passport holder is prohibited from visiting. You will ask, “What about Cuba?” In fact, the current U.S. bar on tourists visiting Cuba is not a State Department ban on using a U.S. passport to visit Cuba; it was a U.S. Treasury Department ban on making any payment to the Cuban government, which had the effect of making travel to Cuba virtually impossible for tourist purposes. The Obama Administration eased those financial restrictions, but the Trump Administration is restoring some of them. For more on travel to Cuba, see the Treasury Department’s FAQs from June 16, 2017.
In addition to the State Department’s ban on tourism for the purpose of protecting American citizens from the dangers of travel to North Korea, watch for the U.S. Treasury to impose its own restrictions on American payments to visit North Korea as part of the U.S. sanctions regime, along the lines of the Cuban restrictions. Although this would seem redundant, it might aid in enforcement of the travel ban once it comes into effect.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo by KEI.