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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
The Department of State will no longer offer visa-free access to the United States for foreigners who have previously traveled to North Korea, an updated regulation introduced on Tuesday showed.
Based on 2015-era legislation, the development will complicate travel eligibility to the U.S. for tens of thousands of people worldwide, create new obstacles for an already under-pressure North Korea travel industry, and likely add a hurdle for even some of the richest South Koreans worldwide.
But while the new rules will cast a long-term shadow over the prospect of inter-Korean tourism, it will for now make little economic impact on North Korea, where Chinese tourists already burdened with the need for U.S. visas make up the vast majority of visitors.
Since the late 1980s, Washington has offered citizens from a specific range of countries around the world the ability to visit the U.S. without requiring a visa for tourism, transit, or some business purposes.
Though the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) – administered by the Department of State in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security – has expanded since 1989 to include a steadily growing range of economically-developed countries, two major security-related changes to the program occurred in 2008 and 2015.
The first, ostensibly implemented to cross-reference travelers against terrorist and no-fly lists, has since 2008 required those seeking to take advantage of the VWP to register online and pay a fee in order to receive an electronic authorization to visit the U.S before any travel there. It’s known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) system.
The second change – also announced on the grounds of national security – is known as the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015.
Under the act, foreigners of visa-waiver countries who had recently visited a list of countries designated by Washington as being of terrorism concern would no longer be eligible to visit the U.S. using the ESTA system.
Implemented in January 2016, the act meant that foreigners who had visited Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and/or Yemen since March 1, 2011 would no longer be able to visit the U.S. using the visa waiver system.
Lacking the inclusion of long-standing American partners like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – where terrorism problems have been well documented — the 2015 act drew attention from some observers for its seemingly political intent.
Fast-forward to August 2019 and now the U.S. has added North Korea to this list, citing its re-designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in November 2017 as justification for the move: “this change to the Visa Waiver Program is required by U.S. law,” a U.S. official told Yonhap News on Tuesday.
Coming over 20 months since the re-designation of the DPRK as a state sponsor of terror, it is unclear why the State Department decided to update its visa waiver regulations in August 2019.
TOURISTS MOSTLY AFFECTED
Under the updated regulations, any foreigner from a visa-waiver country who has visited North Korea since March 1, 2011 will now be required to apply for a visa at an American embassy or consulate to gain permission to visit the U.S.
Costing $160 and requiring extensive paperwork – as well as an in-person embassy visit and interview – the B1/B2 visa necessary for those most impacted by the changes is significantly more costly and difficult to obtain than eligibility through the ESTA system.
The following comprises the main groups of people likely to be affected:
• Tourists – With Western Europeans and individuals from Australia and New Zealand – all VWP eligible areas – making up a majority of the estimated 4,000-6,000 non-Chinese tourists who visited North Korea annually since 2011, tens of thousands of people who might in future want to visit the U.S. will immediately be impacted by the change. Furthermore, for those who wish to keep traveling to the U.S. for professional or tourism reasons, the attractiveness of visiting North Korea in the future will now be diminished.
Though it’s harder to estimate how many will now think twice about going to the DPRK, those in Northeast Asia who had been able to benefit from the increased availability of last-minute, weekend-style trips to North Korea will likely be less inclined to do so. Furthemore, the development suggests that there is no prospect for the U.S. to overturn its 2017-era restriction on American passport holders from visiting the DPRK, a move which remains deeply unpopular with a wide-range of U.S. stakeholders wishing to work or travel in North Korea.
• South Koreans – Because South Korea is a visa-waiver country but has historically been the base for regular travel to the North, it is likely that those who engaged in inter-Korean travel will also be widely impacted by the new regulation. At the top end of the spectrum, this may include senior chaebol bosses who accompanied ROK President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang last September, and at lower ends of the spectrum Kaesong Industrial Complex factory owners, managers and operations staff, and civic group/NGOs engaged in low-level exchanges. Given that South Korea prohibited tourism to the North after 2008, the March 2011-starting date of the new U.S. rules will mean hundreds of thousands of ROK nationals who visited North Korea under the former inter-Korean tourism programs will escape the scope of the new rules.
• Business people, some NGOs – The other group of people most likely to be impacted by the updated legislation comprises businesspeople and some NGO staff who have visited North Korea since 2011. While no exemption yet exists for business people in the DPRK, NGOs going there for humanitarian exemptions will likely be allowed to continue visiting the U.S. on a visa-waiver basis. But that NGO exemption won’t exist for those in the educational or capacity building sectors, it appears. However, because the number of individuals from visa-waiver countries who visited North Korea for such work has historically been relatively low, this is likely to be a relatively small group of people.
Though details of North Korea-specific exemptions have not yet emerged, the State Department says the restriction won’t apply to people from visa-waiver program (VWP) countries whose “presence in any of those countries was to perform military service in the armed forces of a VWP country, or in order to carry out official duties as a full-time employee of the government of a VWP country.”
As a result, nothing changes for many diplomats and other government officials working on North Korea issues.
And if precedence from other target countries follows, it’s likely that additional exemptions will exist for the following classes of visitors to North Korea, “as a general matter”:
• Individuals who travel “on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations, or sub-national governments on official duty”;
• Individuals who travel “on behalf of a humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGO)”;
• Individuals who travel “as a journalist for reporting purposes”
But while some exemptions also exist for those who visited Iraq and Iran for “legitimate business-related purposes,” there is no sign yet that such politically-supported measures will be expanded for North Korea, too.
Though the new measure will be an inconvenience for many people, it is in the short-run unlikely to have any major impact on the economic prospects of North Korea.
However, there could be some major problems for South Korea in the medium-to-long term, as well as some additional bumps in the road for U.S.-DPRK diplomacy.
Historically, the vast majority of visitors to North Korea have always come from non-U.S. visa waiver countries: China, Russia, SE Asia, and so on. And in 2019 this is even more pronounced, with the tourism industry being significantly buoyed by record numbers of Chinese visitors in the past year or so.
With Chinese requiring visas to go to the U.S. anyway, it’s therefore unlikely this new measure will make any real dent in the income Pyongyang generates by accepting foreign tourists.
For South Korea, however, things are more complicated. With Pyongyang and Seoul having committed in 2018 and 2019 to find ways to relaunch inter-Korean tourism, the new measure is going to cast a shadow over this possibility.
Indeed, should denuclearization diplomacy eventually prompt the U.S. to support exemptions for inter-Korean engagement, the ongoing presence of this State Department measure will for some citizens in South Korea undermine the idea of visiting the North. And being pegged to the fact North Korea was defined as a state sponsor of terrorism by President Trump, there is no prospect of this visa-free travel restriction changing absent eventual intervention from the White House.
Finally, Pyongyang is unlikely to forget this new State Department rule soon.
Having repeatedly expressed discontent at how Washington has implemented its side of the Singapore joint statement – which called on the two countries “to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity” – North Korea will likely view the move as further evidence that the U.S. cannot be trusted.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News