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US Lawmakers Ready North Korea Travel Ban

FILE - Passengers board an Air Koryo plane at the Pyongyang International Airport, in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 27, 2015.

Both chambers of Congress are readying legislation to bar Americans from traveling to North Korea after the death of a U.S. citizen held by Pyongyang and amid the continued detention of three others.

"There's no question we shouldn't have people on a willy-nilly basis going to North Korea," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said Wednesday. "We should have a travel ban, and we're working on legislation right now."

"We need to protect Americans and I think we need to restrict access by Americans because we can't protect them [in North Korea]," said the committee's top Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland.

The perils of travel to North Korea were highlighted earlier this month by the death of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned in the country for allegedly stealing a poster, and then was returned to the United States in a coma with fatal brain damage.

FILE - American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016.
FILE - American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016.

Corker said the concern extends beyond the safety of individual American tourists who might be tempted to visit North Korea.

"We've got three Americans [detained] there now. It ends up affecting our own national security," the chairman said. "We've seen it happen in Iran and other places. It ends up affecting negotiations, creates leverage [for an adversary]. Having a few Americans in prison someplace ends up having collateral effects on other things that matter greatly to the whole of American citizenry."

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to take up the North Korea Travel Control Act in a matter of days or weeks. The bill bars tourist travel and would require a special permit for other travel purposes to North Korea. A Senate version is said to be on a similar timetable.

Arguments for, against

In both chambers, restricting travel to North Korea has bipartisan support.

"It's problematic that Americans travel there," said Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Warmbier's home state. "Now we've got to get the three Americans out and Americans shouldn't be traveling there."

Backing is not universal, however, with some lawmakers bristling at the idea of telling their constituents where they may travel.

"I'm not a fan of travel bans, with Cuba or anywhere," said Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake.

Regardless of what Congress does, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia offered some advice for Americans making travel plans.

"I don't think any American should go to North Korea, whether we bar it or not. It is incredibly foolish to do it," Kaine said.

Senators spoke after the Foreign Relations Committee received a classified briefing by the State Department's top North Korea policy specialist. Corker declined to discuss the specifics of the briefing, but said he is less optimistic that a negotiated agreement on Pyongyang's nuclear program can be reached.

"China is not doing what they said they would do [to pressure Pyongyang]," the chairman said. "Our interests and their interests just don't align on this."

VOA's Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.