WASHINGTON The Trump administration is considering restrictions on U.S. travel to North Korea after the harrowing experience of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia college student who was detained in Pyongyang for 15 months and returned in a coma.
“We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “We have not come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it.”
It’s not immediately clear what kind of restriction the administration is considering, but Tillerson has authority under federal law to limit U.S. passport holders from traveling “where there is imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety of United States travellers.”
Anthony Ruggiero, a sanctions expert and advocate of limiting travel to North Korea, said that Tillerson’s comments are welcome but his approach may not go far enough. North Korea could ignore the restriction and China-based tour groups could continue to shuttle U.S. tourists into the rogue state, he said.
A better approach, he said, would be to pass legislation that would ban Americans from visiting North Korea — with exceptions for journalists, humanitarian groups and government-organized trips — and sanction tour companies that ignored the ban.
“The way they treated Otto Warmbier is consistent with how North Korea treats its own citizens,” said Ruggiero, a former U.S. Treasury official who works at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington thinktank. “There is no guarantee they won’t do it to any American who is detained.”
Warmbier, now 22, visited Pyongyang on a trip organised by Young Pioneer tours – a China-based company long criticized for downplaying the risks of traveling to North Korea.
“How safe is it? Extremely safe!,” Young Pioneer says on its website. “Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit.”
On New Year’s Eve of 2015, Warmbier removed from the wall a propaganda poster of Kim Jong Il, the farther of Kim Jong Un, the current North Korean dictator, to keep as a souvenir, according to the North Koreans. Authorities detained him two days later. In March, a North Korean court sentenced the college student to 15 years hard labor after he broke down weeping while making a televised confession.
Earlier this week, Warmbier was medically evacuated from North Korea to his hometown of Cincinnati, where he arrived unconscious and in a coma. His release followed secret negotiations between U.S. officials and the Pyongyang regime.
At a news conference Thursday, Warmbier’s doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said he was stable but unresponsive and had suffered “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of his brain.”
At a separate news conference Thursday, the student’s father, Fred Warmbier, thanked the Trump administration for its role in securing his son’s return but also lashed out at North Korea: “They are brutal and terrible,” he said.
He also criticized the Young Pioneer tour company, saying, “This Chinese company has slick ads on the internet, claiming no American ever gets detained.”
This is not a thrill-seeking tourist destination. This is a country we are still at war with, and a regime that regularly threatens the United States with nuclear annihilation.
Anthony Ruggiero, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Three other U.S. citizens are currently in detention in North Korea, a regime that has long used foreigners as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West. Despite the risks, many adventure travelers continue to pass through China on their way to North Korea, lured by the prospect of visiting one of the world’s most isolated and mysterious countries.
In late May, two members of U.S. House of Representatives introduced the North Korea Travel Control Act, which would require Americans to obtain a license from the Treasury Department to travel to North Korea. U.S. travelers face a similar requirement visiting Cuba.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who introduced the bill along with South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson, said the measure was intended in part to protect U.S. citizens. “With increased tensions in North Korea, the danger that Americans will be detained for political reasons is greater than ever,” he said in a statement on May 25.
Restricting travel to North Korea has been controversial in the past, with some liberals arguing against further moves to isolate Pyongyang and some conservatives balking at limiting Americans’ freedom of travel.
Ruggiero said there are multiple arguments for restricting U.S. tourism to North Korea, including limiting the hard currency the regime receives from such trips.
“This is not a thrill-seeking tourist destination,” he said. “This is a country we are still at war with, and a regime that regularly threatens the United States with nuclear annihilation.”