In the wake of sanctions and following the recent arrest and sentencing of yet another U.S. citizen in North Korea, the potential merits of a travel ban for the country have again been raised.
While the tourism industry in North Korea has long been the subject of debate, there appear to be two common goals of a travel ban on Americans going to the DPRK.
Firstly, a ban would cut off a source of foreign capital to the North Korean government and secondly, it would eliminate both the risk of U.S. citizens being detained in the country and the diplomatic cost of securing their release.
CUBA: A TRAVEL BAN TEMPLATE
The example of U.S. travel restrictions placed on Cuba is often referenced when discussing restrictions applied to U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea.
Since the early 1960s and the comprehensive embargo against the communist government of Cuba, the U.S. has restricted various types of travel to the country.
While the embargo regulations (on Cuba) didn’t actually ban travel, it effectively did so
While the embargo regulations didn’t actually ban travel, it effectively did so as it contained restrictions on financial transactions relating to travel to Cuba.
While the implementation of the Cuban Asset Control Regulations (CACR) did effectively ban travel, over several decades and U.S. presidents, the travel restrictions have been eased and tightened with the adoption of various statutes.
This included the U.S. being able to issue licenses to citizens for certain types of travel defined over 12 categories, including travel for journalistic, educational, religious and humanitarian activities.
With the easing of restrictions under President Barack Obama, the 12 categories are now under a general license and therefore a specific license does not have to be issued by the Department of the Treasury.
Travel for tourism, however, is not included in these categories and in the year 2000 the passing of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA) reiterated that tourism activities were considered restricted. Tourism, according to TSRA, was listed as an activity not defined within the listed 12 categories and an activity that was not licensable.
The imposition of a ban on North Korea would likely be required to come from Congress, and while there have been discussions over potential travel restrictions for U.S. citizens in the media, there have been no serious attempts at legislation.
The momentum may build, however, if North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and detain U.S citizens.
“Eventually the United States will have to find ways to further discourage and even legally restrict or ban U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea if, in the meantime, North Korea doesn’t change course,” former diplomat and current associate director of the Korea Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center David Straub told NK News.
“Such measures would be part of the ratcheting up of pressure on North Korea for strategic reasons, and they would also serve to protect American citizens from abuse and the U.S. Government from blackmail.”
POTENTIAL TOURISM EARNINGS
While the Obama administration has moved the U.S. from a sanctions-based approach to one of engagement with Cuba, the former is very much a current aspect of policy towards North Korea following further violations of the UN Security Council in 2016.
One point of a call for a travel ban – and a goal of sanctions – is restricting money from the North Korean government that it is potentially using in its illicit programs.
Financial amounts going to the government from foreign tourists are not publicly available and neither, until recently, were some of the methods of payment
However, in a system as opaque as North Korea’s it is very difficult to say where the money from any industry in North Korea is ending up, a complexity highlighted by the mixed messages coming from South Korean authorities in explaining their decision to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex this year.
Financial amounts going to the government from foreign tourists are not publicly available and neither, until recently, were some of the methods of payment.
Speaking to NK News in 2015, former North Korea tour operator Walter Keats explained that payments to North Korean partners were usually sent to individual bank accounts owned by North Korean state employees, not to accounts directly associated with North Korea’s travel companies – presumably to avoid a paper trail leading back to the government. Although this should not be assumed to be the payment method for all companies.
In terms of the funds accrued there are a couple of potential reference points. Yoon In-ju, a researcher from the Korean Maritime Institute (KMI) has estimated that in 2014 North Korea earned between $30.6 million and $43.6 million through tourism. These figures assessed that there were 100,000 tourists in North Korea during the year – 95,000 being Chinese and 5,000 Western.
NK News survey data placed the tourism figures at 3,851 in 2014, down by 40 percent from the previous year, due to the temporary ban on tourism and imposed Ebola measures between October 2014 and March 2015.
However, several tour companies contacted for this article estimated that the average annual numbers currently does fall between 5,000 and 8,000 and almost unanimously put the total American proportion of Western tourists per year at between 20 and 25 percent.
Given these figures, if there were 5,000 western tourists per year then the number of U.S. tourists within that group would be around 1,250.
While Chinese tourists were historically subject to cheaper pricing than their Western counterparts, Andrea Lee of Uri Tours told NK News that this gap has closed significantly and was now essentially negligible.
If the estimated tourist expenditures by Chinese and western tourists are equal, the average amount contributed per tourist towards reaching KMI’s assessment of North Korea’s 2014 earnings is between $306 and $436, with the American contingent specifically providing between $382,500 and $545,000 per annum in total.
However according to industry insiders, Chinese tourists typically spend more on souvenirs while in country, such as traditional medicines. Regardless, the total amount contributed by U.S. tourists seems a very small proportion.
If a U.S. travel ban were imposed, it would likely not provide significant financial pressure on the regime, which has shown a willingness to restrict tourist access itself, despite the potential economic costs and long term damage to the viability of the industry.
However, when looking at 75 advertised trips by four major tour companies in 2016, the average cost for a package was $1,533 or around $278 per day, with the average length of these advertised trips being 5.5 days. If applied to the estimated number of American tourists above then around $1.9 million will be spent on North Korea tours by this contingent this year.
While it is unknown what percentage the North Korean government obtains from the purchase of these tours through foreign companies, a document obtained by NK News does provide some clues on direct pricing charged by the regime.
The document, a listing of North Korea’s National Tourism Administration (NTA) and the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) prices from 2013, applies costs on a sliding scale, a system Keats told NK News was common in the North Korean tourism industry.
The documents list the prices for 3-5 people visiting locations in the country (aside from Rason) at 130 euros (around $146) per person per night, 6-9 people costing 105 euros (around $118) per person per night and 10 or more people costing 80 euros ($90) per person per night.
The amount seems low compared to the average price per package listed above, however these prices “do not include international transportation to the DPRK” and “Plane, train and or bus tickets must be purchased separately.”
On top of this “performance tickets, meals in non-tourist restaurants, tips for guides, entry tickets to certain places, any chartered flights, hotel upgrades, etc.” are also not included
The cost of labor, electricity, goods and services for North Korean tourism is also unknown but there are operational costs that need to be considered. This includes the employment of as many as 70 guides by KITC, a figure provided to NK News by a recent visitor to Pyongyang who participated in meetings with the travel company.
“Assuming that if the North Korean government does have the complete ability to appropriate all the money that tourists are spending on their tours to North Korea then I don’t think it would make a huge difference. The vast majority are Chinese,” Alek Sigley of Tongil Tours said.
WOULD THEY STAY OR WOULD THEY GO?
One key element of a potential ban would be eliminating the risk of U.S. citizens being arrested and subjected to lengthy sentences for crimes committed in the country and subsequently being used by North Korea as political bargaining chips.
The most recent arrest of a U.S. citizen involved Otto Warmbier, a college student who entered a restricted area of a hotel in Pyongyang and attempted to steal a propaganda poster. This transgression resulted in a 15-year sentence of hard labor.
Previous U.S. detainees have received lengthy sentences later cut short following high profile visits from U.S. official to secure their release – at a political cost.
In part to mitigate the chances of the arrests occurring the U.S. Department of State currently has a strong warning against travel to North Korea.
Tour companies also provide their own briefings and instructions on what to do and what not to do in country.
However, despite the State Department warning and high-profile examples of U.S. tourists being detained by North Korea, many Americans still visit the country and at times run afoul of the law.
A move to ban travel to North Korea would certainly and significantly impact the numbers of Americans willing to risk the trip, but it may not stop Americans visiting all together.
U.S. citizens, after all, continually violated restrictions on Cuba
U.S. citizens, after all, continually violated restrictions on Cuba and visited the country for tourism throughout the bans.
Cuban Pioneer Tours, a section of Young Pioneer Tours, which takes groups to North Korea, has been operating tours to Cuba for around three years, which includes taking U.S. citizens to the country amid the further easing of travel measures.
“It was illegal for Americans to spend money here without a license from the treasury department. The effect of that was a travel ban really,” Alistair Riddell of Cuban Pioneer Tours told NK News.
“It obviously wasn’t 100 percent effective (the measures), we have had plenty of Americans that have come here,” he said, adding their tours are geared around people-to-people contact and the support and interaction with private enterprises as opposed to state run facilities.
Two U.S. citizens who traveled to Cuba as unchaperoned tourists in 2009 spoke to NK News and described the way in which they were able to do so.
They were able to enter Cuba by obtaining paper visas from Cuban authorities at overseas embassies, which simply listed them as being “North American” and then travelled in via a third country.
Paper visas make it difficult for U.S. authorities and customs to judge if someone has visited the country, and while authorities in Cuba will stamp passports now, Riddell said, they will not do so if you ask them not to.
North Korea issues visas for tourism in very much the same fashion and does not stamp passports as a practice, likely resulting in enforcement difficulties if a ban was in place.
“The fact they can get a paper visa issued in China, there is no proof they went. That’s going to enable people to still travel even if there is a travel ban in place,” Dylan Harris of Lupine Tours told NK News.
Between 2004 and 2005 OFAC reached settlements or assessed alleged CACR breaches, by 800 individuals. According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Cuban travel restrictions, this included violations of travel restrictions, however the numbers of violations as a result of ‘tourist’ activities were not detailed.
In terms of tracking U.S. dollar transactions in North Korea if a ban was implemented, it would be incredibly difficult as tourists can pay euros, RMB as well as the dollar and typically do so in cash only brought from overseas.
Some North Korean tour companies are also of the opinion that American citizens would still visit the country in spite of a ban being imposed.
“People will still go, people still went to Cuba and I went to Cuba 10 years ago and I met Americans there. Americans will still go to North Korea and we will take less customers obviously but they will still go,” Gareth Johnson of YPT told NK News.
This is true even for the tour companies who have had non-American clients expressing concerns about the risks of travelling after the fallout of Warmbier’s arrest.
“With the people that we take now maybe half of the them do get concerned about it but the other half and the Americans, they don’t care, they would go no matter what even with U.S. (travel) sanctions, I don’t think it would affect them at all,” Harris said. This would also complicate matters should U.S. citizens be arrested with a travel ban in place.
“There will always be a few individuals who feel their personal agendas override legal rules and regulations,” Robert McCoy, a former U.S. Air Force North Korea analyst told, NK News.
“As to whether the U.S. government would feel a need to expend precious political capital in negotiating the release of such individuals should they run afoul of Pyongyang were a ban on tourist travel enacted, it would be a tough call … My personal thought is that it is a case of ‘Caveat viator.’”
Unlike with Cuba however, you cannot simply enter North Korea as a tourist on your own and therefore tour operators to a large extent would need to allow Americans to accompany them.
This may apply a certain amount of pressure on the companies themselves due to the potential consequences for them and their clients should something go wrong, or individuals get caught.
“We would definitely reconsider (taking Americans), because we don’t want people coming on our tours and getting into trouble,” Sigley of Tongil Tours said.
Despite no legislation pertaining to a ban currently awaiting a vote, in speaking with several agencies, NK News learned that some tour companies have already applied their own measures when considering whether or not to accept American applicants.
“To be honest, since there have been several cases of Americans missionaries getting arrested after deliberately and severely breaking the laws of the DPRK, we have been doing extra background checks on American applicants,” one individual from a western tour company, who wished to remain anonymous, told NK News.
The individual also said that this resulted in an American being rejected after applying for a tour with the company.
“The risk to take such a person in is just too high in current times. In case of his arrest, we as the travel company would have to pay a certain amount for his ‘extended stay’.”
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Featured Image: Sunan Airport, North Korea. by (stephan) on 2008-06-07 15:03:47