About the Author
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
As a scheduled U.S. travel ban to North Korea edges closer to its September 1 implementation date, uncertainty about whether exemptions will allow certain regular visitors to continue working in the country remains high.
The “geographical travel restriction,” which will prohibit U.S. citizens from using their passports for travel to or within North Korea, has been designed with an exemption system to allow approved individuals from four categories to continue visiting.
But with at least 13 not-for-profits, businesses and educational institutions regularly visiting or based in North Korea, as well as dozens of U.S. journalists reporting from the country each year, a lack of finalized mechanics mean it’s as of yet unclear whether exemptions will be granted for everyone that wants them.
And with North Korea having stated that U.S. citizens will remain welcome regardless of what Washington says, it appears that significant potential remains for American citizens to flout the new rules – with little recourse likely available to U.S. authorities – despite clear punishments being listed.
While U.S. authorities have yet to formally approve the exemption process, a preview document posted at the Office of the Federal Register has, since August 1, sketched out how the process will likely work.
In a nutshell, the document says four categories of U.S. citizens will be allowed to request exemptions: journalists, Red Cross officials, humanitarian workers, and those working “in the national interest.”
“The bureaucracy cannot even start to define the process until after the travel ban has gone into effect”
If the application process is approved, those requesting an exemption will file an application with Passport Services Directorate, including a “statement explaining the reason that the applicant thinks his or her trip is in the national interest, supported by documentary evidence.”
But while the travel ban is scheduled to kick off in less than a week, even those confident of receiving an exemption might find themselves unable to travel anytime soon due to the unfinished nature of the restrictions.
“The USG cannot receive requests during the public comment period of the travel ban or even provide information on the application process; by law, apparently,” said one NGO-source on condition of anonymity.
“The bureaucracy cannot even start to define the process until after the travel ban has gone into effect.”
As a result, once the ban is in place there could be a window of time where no formal exemption approval process exists, meaning some Americans needing to travel to North Korea immediately following September 1 could encounter difficulties as the new system emerges.
But looking further ahead, Keith Luse, Executive Director at the National Committee on North – a group that often represents U.S. NGOs working in the North – said “…it’s my impression that U.S. officials are working to establish a streamlined application procedure allowing for timely review of applications.”
“U.S. State Department officials have welcomed input from U.S. NGO representatives,” he said.
HAVES AND HAVE NOTS
For those working in humanitarian NGOs, there appears to be a high degree of certainty that visits and activities will be allowed to continue. The same also appears clear for staff of Red Cross associations, journalists focused on hard news (documentary makers might find it harder to get an exemption), and members of Track 1.5 or Track 2 exchanges to the North, which could be considered in U.S. national interests.
But while the NGO source said that State “has been meeting with some of the organizations that send U.S. citizens to the DPRK to understand better how they work and to assess the likelihood that their travelers will face detention in the future,” the source also emphasized that “they really, really don’t want to see any more detentions.”
“The North Korea folks in State are a small team and the detentions consume a lot of time that could be spent on other aspects of diplomacy,” the source continued, something multiple former U.S. diplomats privately complained about to NK News in recent months.
This, perhaps, could explain why the State Department said on August 2 that those wishing to obtain an exemption would only be granted a validation “under very limited circumstances.”
As a result – and likely given the recent death of Otto Warmbier and current detentions of two former staff from the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) – omissions in the preview exemption document for Americans working in the tourism, business, and educational sectors are perhaps understandable.
“They really, really don’t want to see any more detentions”
For Americans working in the travel industry – U.S. registered agencies and U.S. nationals working as guides for companies in China – it seems that without a special waiver to allow ongoing activities, a temporary end to all visits to the DPRK appears an almost total certainty at this point.
Yet there remains a handful of Americans in North Korea nevertheless involved in tour-related business activities in-country, some of which serve ostensibly humanitarian aims.
The Rason-based Krahun Co., for example, a “wholly foreign owned business” known for its role in bringing Christians into North Korea, enables volunteers to assist on tree-planting, rice-farming, kimchee-making or rice harvesting tours, activities which could be framed as humanitarian in nature.
Comprised of U.S., Canadian, Swiss and Australian staff, it also notably offers more traditional formats of tourism, a point that could complicate the issuance of exemptions for both volunteers for its quasi-humanitarian missions and its own U.S. permanent staff based in Rason.
Krahun did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the issue.
And then there’s the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the Church-funded school in Pyongyang that has accepted dozens of U.S. volunteer professors and staff since 2009.
Having been linked to the two most recent arrests of U.S. nationals in North Korea and the training of North Korean hackers – a charge the school flatly denies – it is unclear if exemptions for humanitarian exemptions will necessarily be granted to PUST.
As a result, the school may have a high bar to show the Department of State that no further team members will be detained, especially should North Korea continue refusing to engage with Washington on the detention of the two prisoners.
When ask about the travel ban, PUST Chancellor Chan-mo Park, who is a registered U.S. citizen, told NK News that: “I am sorry but there is nothing much I can tell about effect of new travel ban…(the) only thing I heard is that our application for validation will be delayed due to budget for the evaluation process.”
Some, however, appear to be preparing for the worst, with one regular volunteer at the school telling NK News they had submitted an application for overseas citizenship to skirt the ban if no exemptions are offered.
“I’m personally worried about those organizations that work in related sectors like education, cultural exchange, and social-oriented business,” said the anonymous NGO representative. “All of these sectors are valuable and it would a loss for the U.S. to lose those relationships and expertise.”
SKIRTING THE LAW
Since news of the travel ban emerged, North Korean authorities have condemned Washington’s position and emphasized that Pyongyang will not be obliged to respect it.
“We will always leave our door wide open to any U.S. citizen who would like to visit our country out of good will and to see the realities with their own eyes,” the DPRK foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 4.
Notably, when entering North Korea the vast majority of visitors do not receive stamps or visas within their passport. Instead, a blue single fold paper booklet is often provided which contains an individual’s visa detail and trip validity information.
As a result, it appears North Korean customs officials could likely continue offering visit-anonymity to many Americans.
Two individuals that spoke to NK News on condition of anonymity revealed they were already looking into ways to enter North Korea
Some special classes of visitors – journalists, for example – do, however, receive an in-passport visa and stamps when entering and leaving the country. But because such visitors are more likely to fall within classes of exemption, this fact shouldn’t require changes in DPRK customs policy to continue welcoming the majority of American visitors.
It remains to be seen, however, whether staff of air, train and ferry lines serving the North from China and Russia will be willing to allow Americans lacking authorizations onto transport headed towards the DPRK. What is also unclear is whether in approved cases what indicators such staff will have to know whether an American passport is “eligible” to be used on visits to the North or not.
Nevertheless, two individuals that spoke to NK News on condition of anonymity revealed they were already looking into ways to enter North Korea – regardless of whether they would be authorized by their government or not.
Another question mark relates to the situation of dual-passport holders who want to visit the North.
While such visitors should theoretically be able to visit the North if they don’t carry their U.S. passport, there has not yet been any official clarification on the issue.
However, for those who do break or bend the law and get caught, the proposed penalties are notably sharp: revocation of the passport and a fine or potential jail-time of up to ten years.
Beyond directly impacting only U.S. nationals, the fallout from the new rules could, inadvertently, have a wider impact.
“It seems the already minimal presence NGOs have in the country will be scaled back further,” said Geoffrey See, founder of the Choson Exchange NGO, which says it does not bring U.S. nationals to volunteer at its programs.
As a result, See says, there will be “less insight into what is happening on the ground at a time when it is especially needed.”
And that’s something which can directly feed into programs not involving Americans, he explains.
“The perceived tensions from media headlines, which are at odds with reality on the ground, have made recruiting volunteers more challenging and resulted in cancellations of planned visits by volunteers,” he said.
One NGO worker added that the complications may contribute to an emerging trend.
“The North Korean partners have been concerned to see the overall level of U.S. humanitarian engagement declining over the last five years,” they said. “They have relatively few U.S. organizations left to work with.”
And whether the new rules – and exemptions – even help reduce arrests of Americans remains to be seen.
“North Korea could (still) detain reporters or those on a humanitarian mission,” Anthony Ruggiero, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told NK News in August.
Should that happen, an outright ban could emerge which, for some, would be hard to swallow.
“I believe the North Korean partners see the U.S. humanitarian engagement as an important way to establish relationships, trust, and communication with Americans in constructive, practical, and less politically charged environment; that would be the key loss to them,” one NGO source said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Public Domain pictures, NK News edit