The U.S. travel ban prohibiting American passport holders from traveling to North Korea went into effect at the beginning of the month.
Since the ban was announced earlier this summer, both media and government sources have cited three important exemptions: humanitarians, journalists, and those whose travel is considered “in the national interest.” However, there was little concrete information on how exactly these exemptions can be obtained, and what the criteria there are to determine if an activity falls within them.
Even now that information has been publicised on U.S. State Department website, questions and concerns remain. For humanitarians, the change brings not only bureaucratic and administrative challenges but also an unnecessary – and potentially harmful – political dimension to their work.
COMPLEX EXEMPTION PROCESS
The regulations state that U.S. citizens applying for an exemption, in any category, must apply each time they wish to visit the DPRK. For individuals that travel frequently to the country, this means an additional layer of uncertainty and administration for each trip.
This has particular potential to derail projects that require regular visits, such as medical programs. For individuals who travel less frequently but still regularly, a denied application could be a major setback to cultivating and continuing relationships with North Korean counterparts. Individuals wishing to travel to the DPRK to volunteer their expertise with an American non-governmental organization (NGO) now face an additional hurdle, one that could make the trip less appealing. NGOs will have to convince new American volunteers that the process is worth undertaking, and hope that more complex bureaucracy does not deter return volunteers.
The State Department criteria specifically list Red Cross representatives, both American Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross, in a separate bullet point to humanitarians. It is unclear if this specification will result in greater probability of Red Cross applicants being approved, or if all Red Cross activities will be considered valid.
This has particular potential to derail projects that require regular visits, such as medical programs
The wording for non-Red Cross humanitarians states that an exemption may be granted if “Your trip to the DPRK is justified by compelling humanitarian considerations.” There is no clarification on what compelling humanitarian considerations are or are not.
It is unclear if American NGOs and individuals looking to work in more development-oriented assistance, for example delivering a seminar on entrepreneurship with a group like Choson Exchange, would be included in the exemption. However, due to the wording and previous stance of the U.S. government on development activities in the DPRK, it seems unlikely that such activities will be approved.
The application materials, like much of the travel ban, are vague. Applicants must submit a statement justifying why their trip is in the “national interest,” but are not given guidance beyond the one line naming “compelling humanitarian considerations.” There is no review process for denied applications. Successful applications are subject to “all applicable fees,” though the State Department website does not list these fees and I was unable to locate them elsewhere.
The State Department also does not list information on how long applicants can expect the process to take.
A denied application could be a major setback to cultivating and continuing relationships with North Korean counterparts
THE POLITICS OF AID
Before the ban, American citizens could travel to the DPRK without needing to inform the U.S. government of their plans. Humanitarians made choices about the risks and benefits of working in the DPRK for themselves and/or for their organization. Americans may have chosen to keep abreast of government travel warnings as well as inform the U.S. embassy in Beijing and/or the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang of their plans, but ultimately the decision to enter the DPRK was that of the individual citizen.
Now, Americans must have approval from the U.S. government. This adds a dimension of politics previously absent from American humanitarian engagement.
NGOs that pride themselves on being apolitical and responding to humanitarian need on the basis of impartial, independent assessments now must ask the U.S. government for permission to enter the country. Approval signifies that the U.S. government believes the work is sufficiently humanitarian and/or in the national interest. Humanitarians are no longer acting fully independently, but as citizens with the U.S. government’s stamp of approval.
This is harmful to aid in a number of ways, and Americans whose applications are denied are not allowed to appeal the decision.
This could result in programs being stalled or even abandoned in the face of inadequate human resources. NGO workers claiming to not be representatives of the U.S. government are likely to face scrutiny from inside the DPRK. North Koreans may view the American government’s involvement in the passports as signs of larger collaboration or reach into a previously separated realm. Can an NGO truly be independent if their government must filter and approve their activities, becoming a decision-maker in their plans?
NGOs are now faced with the difficult task of compiling applications and hoping their justifications are convincing enough to the State Department. Only time will tell exactly how the ban will affect humanitarian work in the DPRK, but there is potential for catastrophe.
In this case, it is not humanitarian workers, the U.S. government, or the North Korean state that will bear the brunt of the negative effects, but the ordinary people reliant on foreign aid for health care, medicines, or agricultural support.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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