MS Risk Blog

US to Ban US Citizens from Traveling to North Korea

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The United States is to ban its citizens from travelling to North Korea.

Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, who both operate in North Korea, disclosed last week that the ban would be announced on 27 July and will come into effect thirty days later. They have indicated that they were informed by the Swedish embassy, which conducts US affairs in North Korea as Washington has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

Rowan Beard, of Young Pioneer Tours, has disclosed that the embassy was urging all US nationals to depart immediately, adding that the embassy was in the process of trying to check on the number of US tourists left in the country. In a statement, Young Pioneer Tours disclosed that “it is expected that the ban will come into force within 30 days of July 27th,” adding “after the 30-day grace period any US national that travels to North Korea will have their passport invalidated by their government.” Mr Beard disclosed that the 30-day grace period would “give leeway for any (Americans) currently in the country as tourists or on humanitarian work.” Meanwhile Simon Cockerell, of Koryo Tours, disclosed that “it remains to be seen what the exact text is, but the indication is its just a straight up ban on Americans going.” Mr Cockerell added that the agency would still conduct tours and take Americans until the ban came into effect.

US officials have confirmed the ban to US media and have linked it to the death last month of jailed American student Otto Warmbier, however they have provided no details on date or scope. Associated Press news agency quoted US officials as stating that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had decided to implement a “geographical travel restriction” for North Korea, effectively meaning that the use of US passports to enter would be illegal.   Mr Warmbier travelled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, he was arrested in 2016 for trying to steal a propaganda sign and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was returned to the US in a coma in June and died a week alter. After his death, the China-based Young Pioneer Tours announced that it would no longer take visitors from the US to North Korea.

It has been suggested that the US is using the date the ban is set to be announced, 27 July, in a bid to cloud North Korea’s Victory Day, which is on the same day.

Timing of Ban 

There has been movement towards a ban for while in the US, with the likelihood of such a decision increasing in the wake of Mr Warmbier’s death.

In May, two congressmen introduced the North Korea Travel Control bill to cut off the foreign currency the country earns from American tourists. The house foreign affairs subcommittee is scheduled to take up the draft legislation on 27 July however it would still have to go to the Senate. So there could be an executive order.

Apart from the treatment of Americans in North Korea, tensions have been increasing over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Earlier this month, North Korea announced that it had successfully tested what it said was its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – the latest in a series of tests in defiance of a United Nations ban. While its range has been disputed, some experts have stated that it could reach Alaska. The US and South Korea then conducted a ballistic missile drill and issued a stark warning to North Korea.

How Many Americans Will Be Affected?

North Korea only relaxed its rules for American visitors in 2010. While the state department does not keep a record of the number of American tourists, tour operators have suggested that the figure is upwards of 1,000 every year.

What Happened to Otto Warmbier?

Mr Warmbier, 22, was an economics student who was arrested on 2 January 2016. He later confessed to trying to take a propaganda sign from a hotel. In March 2016 he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. In June 2017, North Korea stated that he had been in a coma for a year after contracting botulism. He was flow back to the US on 13 June but died a week later without regaining consciousness.   His family has rejected North Korea’s version of events, stating that he had been subjected to “awful torturous mistreatment.”

Americans Detained in North Korea

There are reported to be three US citizens in custody in North Korea:

In the past, the US has accused North Korea of detaining its citizens to use them as pawns in negotiations over its nuclear weapons programme.