The U.S. will prohibit American citizens from traveling to North Korea due to mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention, the State Department said on Friday, following a travel warning on May 9 that alerted all Americans not to travel to the country.
“The Secretary has authorized a Geographical Travel Restriction on all U.S. citizen nationals' use of a passport to travel in, through, or to North Korea,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert in a statement.
The decision came after the death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier who passed away after falling into a coma into a North Korean prison.
“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,” added Nauert.
Individuals seeking to travel to North Korea for certain limited humanitarian or other purposes may apply to the State Department for a special validation passport.
Touring companies had been informed of this travel ban by the Swedish embassy, which acts for the U.S. because Washington has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours said the ban would be formally announced on July 27, and then would go into effect within 30 days of July 27.
Americans are thought to account for one percent of all foreign tourists, and the ban would affect estimated 800-1,000 Americans who visit North Korea annually, according to touring companies.
State Department’s travel warning on May 9 said U.S. citizens in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are “at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention” under its system of law enforcement.
It said Pyongyang “imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes” in the U.S. and threatens American detainees with being treated in accordance with “wartime law” of DPRK.
Koryo Tours’ Beijing-based general manager Simon Cockerell told The Associated Press that the ban, which likely would have a tangible impact on business for his and similar outfits, would turn away from engagement with the already isolated country.
"It's unfortunate because we criticize North Korea for being isolationist and now we're helping isolate them," Cockerell said. "That's not what soft power is about."
Experts told VOA the case of Warmbier should be sufficient warning to all of the dangers of traveling to North Korea.
“North Korea targets U.S. citizens for detention and then uses them as political hostages to gain U.S. concessions,” Dennis Wilder from Georgetown University's U.S.-China Initiative told VOA on Friday.
“Unless or until North Korea promises to alter this practice, the ban should remain in place and no U.S. passport holder should attempt to go to North Korea, even if they hold additional passports from other countries,” added Wilder, who served as the senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush.
“While in principle, we should encourage people-to-people engagement,” Atlantic Council senior fellow Robert Manning told VOA, “I think Pyongyang’s pattern of behavior clearly justifies a ban.”
“Over the long run, the international community should do all it can to isolate Pyongyang as much as possible,” said Harry Kazianis from the Center for the National Interest, “killing tourist travel to that country is one smart way to cut off much needed cash — cash that can help make more advanced missiles.”
“Sadly, there is no room for people-to-people engagement when North Korea murders American citizens. There is not much room for dialogue at present when you actively kill the people you would have such dialogue with,” added Kazianis.
Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo said on Thursday at a security forum in Aspen, Colorado, that the threat from North Korea is “in the front of” President Donald Trump’s mind, and the intelligence community is preparing a range of options to end that threat.