By Robert R. King
On August 19, the U.S. State Department announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended the restriction on travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea for another year. This continues the travel ban through September 1, 2020. The prohibition on using a U.S. passport to travel to North Korea was initially imposed on September 1, 2017, by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and then Secretary Pompeo extended it for an additional year in August 2018.
The official notice gave the reason for the extension: “The Department of State has determined that there continues to be serious risk to United States nationals of arrest and long-term detention representing imminent danger to the physical safety of United States nationals traveling to and within the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].” The ban prohibits the use of a United States Passport for travel to North Korea.
The directive also maintains provisions to permit travel involving U.S. passport holders who are journalists or who are involved in humanitarian efforts in the North. Individuals who seek to travel and qualify for this exception, however, must request special permission, and they must apply for a special single-use U.S. passport to visit North Korea. Such passports require time for vetting and to make the necessary official determination. Approval is not automatic.
A New Burden for South Koreans who Travel to the North
A new twist which was added this year on North Korea travel is the requirement that South Korean citizens who have previously traveled to North Korea are not eligible to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. That means they must go through the inconvenience, hassle, and cost of going to a U.S. consulate to secure a visa in order to travel to the United States. South Koreans who travel to the North for official South Korean government business are exempt from this requirement.
The Visa Waiver Program is a world-wide program that allows citizens of 38 specific countries to travel to and remain in the United States for tourism, business, or in transit for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa. These are countries which do not have a high percentage of citizens overstaying a visit to the United States. Asian and Pacific countries in the Visa Waiver Program in addition to South Korea are Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. Most other countries in the program are European.
Personal travel to the North may pose some security risk because such individuals could be working with North Korean intelligence agencies, but this justification for the change is not used to explain this new requirement. Making travel to the United States more burdensome for South Koreans who have traveled to North Korea for business or personal reasons seems to be more harassment to discourage travel to the North.
The North was quick to criticize the United States for its treatment of South Koreans who have visited the north as private citizens. A North Korean media critique called the U.S. policy “humiliating.” “The more [a country] acts obsequiously and subserviently, the greater the shame and humiliation. . . .That is the serious lesson for the pitiful predicament of contemporary South Korea.”
Safety Risks of Travel to North Korea
The reason given for banning most travel to North Korea, which was given when the ban was first put in place in 2017 and reiterated this year with the extension of the ban, is the safety of American citizens. On July 10, 2019 the Department of State reissued its travel advisory for North Korea. The top line of the notice was this: “Do not travel to North Korea due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals.” The travel advisory also suggests that few individuals who receive a special validation to travel to North Korea should make plans before they travel by drafting a will, designating insurance beneficiaries, and discussing funeral arrangements with family. Travelers are reminded that the United States can provide only limited assistance to U.S. citizens because there is no American embassy and no American diplomats in Pyongyang.
The initial travel ban in 2017 was issued shortly after American student Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a comatose state after being detained by North Korean officials for 17 months. He died without regaining consciousness shortly after he returned home to Ohio. Three other Americans detained by North Korea were returned to the United States in May 2018, one month before the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
The detention of U.S. citizens has been an issue, though the number of citizens who have been detained is small. Since the release of the three Americans in May 2018, only one American illegally crossed the border from China into North Korea. He was expelled by Pyongyang after only a few weeks. With three summits between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, hints and hopes of other meetings to come, and a robust exchange of “beautiful letters,” it would seem that now travel to North Korea is less dangerous than previously. The need for a travel ban based solely on travel risk—as the current travel ban extension is—is disingenuous.
Sanctions on a Slippery Slope
The real reason for the extension of the travel prohibition is likely the fear that easing the travel ban could put on the slippery slope the UN sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs. The strong UN Security Council economic sanctions seem to have had an important effect in moving Pyongyang to be somewhat more positive in dealing with the United States. The risk appears to be that if relations with the United States and the rest of the world improve, there will be declining pressure to maintain sanctions until sufficient progress is made to bring about real denuclearization.
The North Koreans have been motivated to make significant improvement in relations with China and Russia as Kim Jong-un has attempted to court President Trump. Kim’s goal is to make the absolute minimal concessions on nuclear and military issues to get economic sanctions lifted. The fear for the United States is that any lifting of penalties against the North, even on such a routine issue as travel by U.S. Citizens to North Korea, could weaken the commitment of UN member states, and of China and Russia in particular, to maintain tough sanctions until meaningful progress is made on denuclearization.
The North has made diplomatic efforts to undermine support for sanctions. This was clear after the third photo-op “summit” in Panmunjom in June of this year. Immediately after the media’s photo avalanche of the happy smiling faces of President Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the North-South Korean border, the North Koreans unleashed a press blast accusing President Trump of seeking to undermine peace by pressuring other countries to maintain sanctions.
The aggressive, in-your-face North Korea series of missile tests in the last several weeks are carefully calculated to divide the United States from South Korea and Japan as part of the effort to undermine sanctions. The tests all involved shorter range missiles so that President Trump would not see them as threatening to the United States. (The North Korean video of a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C., which was widely seen in 2016, has disappeared from view and it appears to be in “in the vault” in Pyongyang.)
These short range missile tests are a serious threat to Japan and South Korea. Kim Jong-un’s tactic to divide Washington from Seoul and Tokyo seems to have had some success. President Trump has said the short range missile tests are not prohibited under the UN sanctions (although some of his own officials have been more cautious), while South Korean and Japanese officials have been seriously concerned.
The U.S. is holding firm on its travel ban—not because of the risk to American travelers wanting to visit North Korea—but because Washington wants to prevent any backsliding or softening on economic sanctions against the North over its hostile actions and its aggressive struggle to develop its offensive nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Value of Travel for Humanitarian Reasons
Beyond the strategic concerns of North Korean nuclear capabilities, however, there is value in travel for humanitarian reasons. A number of America humanitarian non-government organizations (NGOs) have played an important role in North Korea, and their efforts have undermined Pyongyang’s propaganda that the U.S. has no interest in the well-being of the North Korean people. Their compassion for the people of the North shows that Americans are not the vicious villains of North Korea’s state-controlled popular media.
North Korea certainly is in need of humanitarian assistance, and its appeals to the United Nations for food and medical aid are valid. At the same time, Pyongyang is the worst enemy of the well-being of its own people, but the government’s failure to devote resources to public welfare rather than nuclear weapons is not the fault of the victims.
Travel is necessary to assess need and to monitor delivery of humanitarian aid. The United States government is not at all likely to provide assistance directly, but there are a number of outstanding American non-government organizations who provide do meaningful medical and other humanitarian help. Unfortunately, the travel ban has undermined their ability to provide aid and assure it reaches those who are in need. It is difficult, time consuming and expensive to get the necessary approvals to travel for humanitarian work even though exceptions are allowed.
Furthermore, the United States is trying to draw distinctions between short-term humanitarian aid and longer-term development assistance. Travel permission is given for those involved in medical treatment and supplying needed medication or for those providing modest emergency food assistance, but those individuals and groups involved in programs to encourage better agricultural methods or to increase farm output are considered to be providing development assistance and they are not allowed to travel to North Korea. That is a distinction without merit. Increasing the output of food production or increasing the portion of protein in the North Korean diet is equally helpful. “Development” programs that improve access to food and medical care are also important and needed humanitarian efforts.
There is little value in Americans making a bucket-list trip to North Korea or running along the Taedong River and being cheered at the Kim Il-sung Stadium for participating in the Pyongyang Marathon. It is in our interest, however, to have Americans visibly leading carefully structured assistance programs that directly help North Koreans.
It makes sense to renew the ban on Americans traveling to North Korea because of the risk to strong sanctions against the North for its nuclear and missile weapons programs. But it makes just as much sense to make sure that exceptions for humanitarian travel are generously permitted and do not impose a burden in time and cost to the NGOs who play an important role in demonstrating to North Koreans the humanitarian values of Americans.
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.