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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Citizens of foreign countries who have traveled to North Korea on or after March 1, 2011 will no longer be eligible for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) under new rules made public this week.
In a change first reported by South Korea’s Yonhap News on Tuesday, citizens of the 38 countries previously eligible for 90-day visa-free entry into to the U.S. will now need to obtain a visa if they have visited the DPRK in the last eight years.
“No longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program… [are] nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen on or after March 1, 2011,” the recently-updated website of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reads.
A State Department official stressed to Yonhap that the “change does not ban travel to the United States or admission into the United States.”
“Any Visa Waiver Program travelers potentially impacted by this designation will still be able to apply for a visa at U.S. embassies or consulates,” they added.
It remains unclear why the U.S. has decided to enforce the new rules now: a State Department official told Yonhap that the new rules were a legal requirement resulting from North Korea’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 2017.
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 places restrictions on the use of the visa waiver program for foreign nationals who travel to countries mandated by the United States to support international terrorism.
Only those who have traveled to the DPRK for “diplomatic or military purposes” on behalf of their countries will still be eligible, the CBP said, suggesting that those working in media and humanitarian aid may also be affected.
Under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015, those who have traveled to affected countries while working for an international organization or NGO, or for the purposes of journalism, are exempt from the restrictions.
It is unclear whether this exemption will extend to North Korea, however, and the U.S. State Department did not respond to multiple requests for further clarification from NK News.
Also impacted are citizens of South Korea, which has been part of the VWP since 2008, who are banned from visiting the DPRK without permission from Seoul.
An official at the ROK Ministry of Unification (MOU) on Tuesday said the government “has not received any request from the U.S.” when asked whether it has been asked to share a list of South Koreans who had visited the North with U.S. officials.
“There has been no request for us to share the list of visitors to North Korea,” an official said. “Although we cannot forejudge, we will take action in accordance with domestic decree-law in the light of protection of personal information.”
According to data provided by the unification ministry, around 37,000 South Koreans received government permission to visit the North between March 1 in 2011 and July 31 in 2019.
The actual figure may be slightly different, Seoul said Tuesday, as it does not cover those who visited the North without the green light from the government.
When asked if Seoul would notify citizens who have participated in exchange events and reunions of separated families that they are no longer be eligible for the U.S. VWP, the official said the government would notify them with the goal of “minimizing public inconvenience.”
The unification ministry, they said, will discuss the issue of delivering notice to South Koreans who participated in past reunion events with the relevant ministries.
A database provided by the ROK MOU shows that 813, 972, and 833 South Koreans traveled to the North to meet family members in 2014, 2015, and 2018, respectively, with a total of 2618 participating in reunion events since 2011.
Also among other countries affected will be citizens of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Australia.
One North Korea tourism industry insider said the new rules were likely to impact the willingness of many to travel to the DPRK.
“I would expect it to have an impact for sure,” Simon Cockerell, General Manager at Koryo Tours, told NK News. “After all most of the non-Chinese tourists are experienced world travelers so would inevitably pass through or visit the U.S. at some point.”
“Getting a U.S. visa for many people isn’t hard though, but it isn’t free and does take some effort so some may be simply unwilling to do it,” he added. “It’s a pity this has happened.”
U.S. citizens, for their part, have been banned from visiting North Korea since 2017 — a ban extended for an additional year by the U.S. Department of State last August.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: file photo