On June 12, North Korea released Otto Warmbier, an American who had been held since January of 2016 after allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. Upon his release, it was learned that Warmbier had been in a coma for much of the past year. After examining Warmbier, University of Cincinnati doctors stated he had “extensive loss of tissue” in all parts of his brain. Seven days later, Warmbier died.
While we know little of the details on what led to Warmbier’s condition — doctors stated they saw no evidence of physical trauma — or why North Korea chose to release the American now, Warmbier’s death speaks to a bigger question of how to deter Americans from travelling to North Korea.
Foreigners other than Americans have been arrested in North Korea, for example Dutch stamp collector Willem van der Bijl and Australian pastor John Short. However, most Western attention remains on American detentions. Several cases included those committed to missionary work in one form or another, presumably aware of the likelihood of imprisonment if caught. Americans of Korean descent are also common targets, including the three American currently detained by North Korea. Merrill Newman, a veteran who served in clandestine operations during the Korean War, was also briefly detained in 2013. What most of the American detainees have in common is that they suffer a disproportionate North Korean response to actions that in most other countries would be at best a minor offense, consistent with a country that frequently punishes three generations of its citizens for crimes against the regime.
Young Pioneer Tours, the company Warmbier used to enter North Korea, still labels the country as “probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit” and most Americans that have made the journey, through YPT or through a competitor, speak well of their experiences. Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department “strongly warns” U.S. citizens not to travel to North Korea, where at least 16 Americans have been detained in the last decade. But to what extent can the United States prevent travelers enticed by the novelty of a country to which few Americans have traveled?
Despite warnings, roughly a thousand Americans travel to North Korea each year. Until 2010, Pyongyang only allowed Americans in during the Arirang Festival in August and September; the recent expansion was related just as much to the regime’s desire for an influx of foreign money as to American demand to go. While there’s a chance that the tourism industry encourages minor domestic reforms and exposes more North Koreans to the outside world, the funds also potentially further the country’s weapons program. Even those cognizant of a military-tourism linkage may still opt to go, however, either enticed by the novelty of entering a country largely closed off to the outside world or focusing on how person-to-person exchanges, albeit those highly choreographed by Pyongyang, may promote a decline in anti-American sentiment.
Historically the United States rarely institutes strong restrictions on where Americans travel abroad, with Cuba as the clearest counterexample. Yet it is unclear that such a restriction would necessarily deter committed travelers, just as many Americans defied restrictions against travel to Cuba. For example, North Korea already provides an alternative to a traditional passport stamp, much like Cuba in the past, so that concerned travelers can avoid drawing attention to their travels in the future. Nor has there been any particular stigma attached to traveling to North Korea.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested the possibility of a travel ban; however, tougher restrictions on travel to North Korea would require congressional action. The U.S. Code on Passports states that the government can only restrict travel to countries with which the United States is at war or armed conflict and where there is “imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety” of travelers. This latter clause, to date, has not been interpreted broadly to apply to cases such as North Korea.
South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson and California Representative Adam Schiff have proposed requiring a Treasury Department license for travel to and from North Korea to eliminate tourist travel and support for this or similar measures is likely to increase in the wake of Warmbier’s death. However, this proposal was designed to allow continued travel related to humanitarian operations and despite noble intentions, such an exemption could be used to skirt the tourist ban, much like humanitarian and academic trips to Cuba often blurred the line between stated objectives and de facto tourism.
The success of any travel restriction relies heavily on the ability to identify violators and the extent of punishment for such violations. American tourists visit North Korea by first traveling to China, blending in with the thousands of Americans that arrive each day to study, tour, or work in China. In the absence of travelers self-identifying or attempts to identify Americans that board flights to Pyongyang through Air China or North Korea’s state-owned Air Koryo, it is unclear how the U.S. government will identify violators of a North Korea travel ban. Even if that hurdle is overcome, there’s the question of punishment. Minor fines are unlikely to dissuade travelers, nor is it clear that Congress would be willing to approve harsher punishments such as prison sentences.
Other options include refusing to aid Americans arrested in North Korea who travel without prior clearance. However, similar warnings on the limits of American diplomatic efforts toward North Korea, a country with which the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations, have not seemed to deter travelers to date. Each arrest expends American formal and informal diplomatic resources while providing North Korea another tool to extract concessions, yet the political costs of ignoring Americans in need, even if sufficiently warned in advance, may be greater.
Any change in policy is unlikely to end all American tourism to North Korea, but the death of Otto Warmbier may at the very least deter temporarily those considering the trip by reminding would-be travelers of the potential risks. Young Pioneer Tours announced on June 19 that they would no longer accept Americans on their North Korean tours and other tour groups may follow suit, concerned about the fallout if another American is detained on their watch. Perhaps through this combination — legal restrictions aimed at decreasing demand and travel agencies refusing to take Americans, decreasing supply — we can avoid another tragedy.
Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on the domestic and international politics of East Asia. His previous work on North Korea has appeared in Korea Observer, Pacific Review, and International Relations of the Asia-Pacific.