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View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
The U.S. Department of State will extend a ban on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea for another 12 months due to ongoing safety concerns, according to a notice of extension filed in the U.S. Federal Registry on Thursday.
The original ban, which took effect from September 1, 2017, was originally imposed under then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and 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.
“The Department of State has determined that there continues to be serious risk to United States nationals of arrest and long-term detention representing imminent danger to the physical safety of United States nationals traveling to and within the DPRK,” the notice reads.
“Accordingly, all United States passports shall remain invalid for travel to, in, or through the DPRK unless specially validated for such travel under the authority of the Secretary of State,” it adds. The ban will expire on August 31, 2019, unless the State Department revokes it earlier or does not extend by that date and will take effect on Saturday.
U.S. citizens working in certain sectors are able to acquire exemptions from the ban in order to travel to the DPRK. These typically include humanitarian workers, journalists, diplomats or those working in the “national interest”.
North Korea reacted negatively to the ban in 2017, saying that the U.S. was preventing important exchanges in the country.
“The DPRK encourages a variety of exchanges with other countries including the visit to the country irrespective of their governments’ policies toward it and there is no source of anxiety about foreigners’ personal security,” its Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by North Korean media outlets in August 2017.
However, despite North Korea’s opposition, the U.S. Government acted largely in response to multiple arrests of U.S. citizens with North Korea who were subsequently charged with crimes against the state and sentenced to long prison terms.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed to NK News on Thursday that instances of such arrests continue to inform decision making on the travel ban.
“Secretary Pompeo has decided to continue travel restriction on all U.S. nationals ’ use of a passport to travel in, through, or to North Korea, due to continuing concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” the spokesperson said.
While North Korea generally releases these detainees well before their imposed sentences expire in what it typically deems a “humanitarian” action one of its more recent detainees, Warmbier was returned in a coma and died shortly after his transfer back to U.S. soil.
North Korea most recently released three U.S. citizens in May, which included Kim Sang-duk (also known as Tony Kim), Kim Hak-song and Kim Dong-chul.
Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-song were detained by North Korean authorities in April and May last year, while the third detainee, Kim Dong-chul, had been imprisoned since October 2015.
The ban has seen an end to U.S. tourists visiting the country, which was estimated by NK News to represent approximately 1,250 per year – a figure that would generate about $1.9 million dollars of U.S. consumer expenditure, including fees towards travel, food, and accommodation.