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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
On September 1, 2017, a U.S. State Department measure came into effect declaring all American passports invalid for travel to North Korea.
The so-called “travel ban” on U.S. citizens to North Korea came partly in response to the death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, who had fallen into a coma while imprisoned in the North and died soon after being returned back to his home country.
Intended to protect its citizens from the threat of detainment and possible exploitation by North Korea in the course of negotiations, the ban was put in place during a time of extreme tension between the two sides, with President Donald Trump having just weeks earlier threatened North Korea with “fire and fury.”
But, importantly, according to the State Department notice, the ban is only valid for one year, and is set to expire at the end of August “unless extended or sooner revoked by the Secretary of State.”
This means that current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must soon make a decision regarding the fate of the travel ban in the midst of ongoing negotiations with North Korea over denuclearization and improving bilateral relations.
While it now appears unlikely the U.S. will drop the measure this week given the cancellation of Pompeo’s trip and reports of State Department doubts over the North’s sincerity to denuclearize, it remains an issue of unfortunate timing, and one which will require attention very soon.
So what do stakeholders and experts believe should be done as the one year anniversary approaches, and what impact has the ban had on tour companies and tourism to the DPRK in general over the last year?
MONEY AND CULTURE
The most obvious and immediate effect of the travel ban was the sudden loss in American tourist dollars for North Korea.
While North Korea does not recognize or enforce the ban itself, it is followed by all prominent western tour companies operating in the DPRK, meaning that very few Americans have traveled to the DPRK in the past year, besides select journalists, humanitarians, and diplomats who successfully applied for exemptions.
Some U.S. tourists with dual nationality could have traveled under different passports, and others may have skirted the ban and traveled to the North anyway via travel companies who do not enforce the ban, though every company NK News spoke with recently said they chose to enforce it.
And, according to two of the leading tour companies operating in North Korea, Americans were far from the majority of tourists on western tour groups in the country prior to the ban.
Both Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) and Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours told NK News that only about 20% of their customers traveling to the DPRK were from the U.S. in recent years, with Beard adding the number may have reached as high as 40% prior to 2016.
As for the ban’s collateral impact on tourism from nationals of other countries, the results are less straightforward.
“Since the ban was in place we have had a huge spike in Australian and British tourists funnily enough,” Beard said.
Cockerell, on the other hand, disagreed, saying he sensed people were perhaps “put off” by the idea of traveling there given the American escalation in warnings, estimating that “some hundreds” of customers were lost in the last year due to the ban.
But in addition to potentially scaring some customers away, the ban also had the effect of raising intrigue over tours to the now-forbidden destination, causing some prospective tourists to contact the companies inquiring as to when they would be allowed to once again join their tours.
“Almost every day we are receiving emails from Americans wanting to join us on tour to North Korea,” Rowan Beard of YPT said. “If I were to make a guess now I’d say about 150-200 U.S. tourists have enquired about wanting to visit North Korea since the ban was in place last year.”
“Almost every day we are receiving emails from Americans wanting to join us on tour to North Korea”
Koryo’s Simon Cockerell also said he has received “a fairly consistent flow” of inquiries and “a good number of people waiting for access to be opened for them again.”
Though it is difficult to calculate the monetary loss for the North Korean side as a result of the travel ban, Beard estimated it will have been significant considering “it wasn’t just U.S. tourists, but also businessmen, NGOs, doctors, teachers,” and others who may have otherwise entered the country for projects and events.
Under the ban, only journalists, Red Cross representatives, and those carrying out humanitarian or other work “in the national interest” were eligible to apply for an exemption.
When or if the ban is eventually repealed or simply expires, YPT and Koryo Tours both indicated they will wait to accept American passport-holders until receiving extensive assurances from the U.S. State Department on the ban’s permanent end.
Given that the State Department told NK News on Monday they “have no information to share about any possible extension at this time” just a few days away from its expiration, it is entirely possible the ban will lapse and be renewed days or weeks later.
WHAT AMERICANS BRING TO THE DPRK
While tour companies remain cautiously optimistic about an end to the ban, which would obviously bring monetary benefits, tour guides also often promote the presence of U.S. and other foreign tourists in North Korea as a means of bridging the cultural divide and contributing to the country’s opening.
America’s “greatest soft power asset is their own people, and the basic humanity that they display to the people of North Korea when they visit does so much more to plant the seed that people are people than any amount of alternative methods,” Cockerell said.
Beard echoed this sentiment, saying “the majority of North Koreans I know were fairly upset” when the ban was first imposed.
“This was their only connection to Americans and a lot of them genuinely enjoyed being able to interact with them and learning more about ‘their supposed enemy.’ Music, culture, food, expressions, film., etc. It was a shame but a lot of the North Koreans understood the decision but were certain that it would only make things worse between the two countries.”
John Delury, professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, also supports an end to the ban, telling NK News both sides should drop these restrictions on their own citizens.
“Free travel of citizens of the [the U.S. and DPRK] is actually an important [way] to change the relationship” between the two countries, he said.
It is important to note that, besides the American ban, North Korea also does not allow free travel of its citizens to foreign countries, including to the U.S.
“Why is it any more acceptable for tourists to visit North Korea now than South Africa during Apartheid?”
Coupled with a Presidential Proclamation made by Trump (and recently upheld by the Supreme Court) banning North Koreans from entering the U.S., the free exchange of people between the two countries faces additional obstacles beyond the U.S. passport ban’s fate this week.
But not everyone believes the potential benefits on the person-to-person level outweigh the dangers which spurred the ban in the first place.
The interactions described above are “more accurately described as tourist-to-minder relationships,” said Joshua Stanton, a sanctions expert and writer of the One Free Korea blog.
“[Tours by Americans] weren’t advancing understanding; they were fleecing tourists for overpriced tour packages, paying for God-knows-what, and morally debasing the tourists themselves,” he added.
“Why is it any more acceptable for tourists to visit North Korea now than South Africa during Apartheid? In both cases, tourism perpetuated crimes against humanity.”
Regardless of the moral debate over tourism to North Korea, the presence of Americans in the DPRK does raise the possibility of repeated detentions, which have in the past provided the DPRK with leverage in negotiations with the U.S.
This is a point which Secretary Pompeo will have to take into account as he decides what role the travel ban will play as talks cross over the ban’s expiration date on August 31.
“There is no basis whatsoever to believe that Pyongyang has ceased the taking of hostages as a tool of diplomacy, or that Americans are safe in North Korea,” Stanton said.
Calling the hostages (as Trump continues to refer to the three recently-released prisoners to Pompeo after a trip to Pyongyang in May) a burden on U.S. taxpayers, he added that “the fear that North Korea will harm them in captivity also constrains our freedom of policy action, and thus increases the danger to everyone else.”
Stanton believes the ban should be extended, and that Congress should go a step further, to “supplement it with a broader, statutory ban on any dollar-denominated transactions with North Korea incident to travel.”
On the other hand, John Delury suggested that lifting the ban could even be seen as an extension of the Singapore agreement, giving the U.S. an easy trust-building action amid increasing fears of stalled talks.
Pointing to the first point of the agreement, which commits the two countries to establishing new relations, Delury suggested North Korea could in return provide public assurances towards the safety of American travelers.
North Korea also does not allow free travel of its citizens to foreign countries
He also, however, cautioned that holding out the potential lifting of the ban is not a hefty enough point of leverage to use in negotiations, making its extension – whether temporary or long-term – a likely outcome later this week in the absence of high-level talks.
Simon Cockerell also expressed further doubt at the prospects for lifting the ban at the one year anniversary of its imposition.
So while the odds are slim that the ban will become a major sticking point in ongoing dialogue between the U.S. and DPRK, the fact remains that this week’s expiration date will at least force the issue back into the open.
North Korean state media have not spoke out against the measure since last year, and the U.S. State Department repeatedly declined to comment to NK News this month on plans for its fate.
By next week, however, we will know if it is being quietly renewed or perhaps loudly announced as the latest small-scale trust-building measure between the two sides.
Edited by Oliver Hotham