Increasing concerns over the risk of being arrested and detained in North Korea have led the U.S. Department of State to restrict Americans from traveling there. The ban is expected to go into effect on September 1.
“The safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas is one of our highest priorities,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
North Korea Travel Ban
The announcement came after an American traveler died earlier this summer, days after being released from incarceration in North Korea. Arrested during a tour in January 2016 for trying to steal a poster, university student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment with hard labor; he died days after being returned to the U.S. in a coma in June.
Tour companies operating in North Korea had been weighing restrictions on Americans since Warmbier’s death. Young Pioneer Tours, the outfit Warmbier traveled with, stated it would not accept Americans any longer. Uri Tours was in the process of reviewing its policy on Americans, tour manager Elliott Davies said, when the new ban was announced.
The restriction is unfortunate, said Brian Saylor of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who arrived home after a tour of North Korea just days after Warmbier died. He traveled with Uri Tours.
“Don’t get me wrong: I was apprehensive on that trip,” said Saylor, a 40-year-old police officer and Army veteran who spent five days in North Korea during a month traveling in Asia. “We get the impression from our own media coverage that this is a dark, oppressive, tyrannical state and that everyone is miserable and starving. But it’s not true.”
While he was there, Saylor said several North Koreans asked him about the Warmbier situation, and about why there was so much tension with the United States. Saylor noted that if the U.S. government is not going to have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, individuals traveling to the country for tourism, sports, or the arts could engage in citizen-to-citizen dialogue.
Why did he choose to visit North Korea? Saylor was stationed in South Korea during his time in the U.S. Army and later spent a semester studying abroad there. The mystique of the closed country to the north intrigued him, and he finally decided to go to North Korea in spring 2017.
The trip dispelled a number of myths he had in his mind about North Korean people, Saylor said. “You see some cultural similarities between North and South Korea. You see it as one country culturally and linguistically. But they’ve lived a very different economic life for the past 60 years or so.”
Though Americans won’t be able to travel to North Korea, travelers from other nations can still go—and still face ethical quandaries when considering traveling to a regime-run country with oppressive policies. Saylor said he gave thought to that before booking his trip.
“I don’t gloss over human rights issues,” he explained. But ultimately, he decided that tourism—like sports, music, and the arts—serves as “a small gateway to open up some kind of dialogue.”
Such an examination is what the organization Ethical Traveler suggests travelers do when deciding whether to go to a controversial destination like North Korea: Consider how you can minimize negative impacts and maximize positive ones.
“In this case, we mean mindfulness in terms of [whether you are] supporting the regime and in terms of the risk to each individual traveler,” says Ethical Traveler co-founder Michael McColl.
Four categories of Americans may still be able to go to North Korea by applying for an exemption, according to the State Department. The categories are journalists covering North Korea, American Red Cross or International Committee of the Red Cross staff on official business, other aid workers with “compelling humanitarian considerations,” and travelers whose trips are deemed in “the national interest.”