The U.S. State Department has decided to ban all its citizens from traveling to North Korea. On July 21, the department said that due to mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, it authorized a Geographical Travel Restriction on all U.S. nationals’ use of a passport to travel in, through, or to North Korea. When the plan goes into effect in late August, North Korea will be the only country in the world that is subject to Washington’s travel ban. Here’s Professor Lim Eul-chul from the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University.
It is very unusual that the U.S. will restrict its citizens’ freedom of movement with a travel ban. Since 1967, the U.S. has occasionally prohibited its nationals from traveling to some countries such as Algeria, Iraq, Iran, and Cuba. Still, the travel restriction to block Americans from visiting North Korea is considered a very drastic measure. It reflects that the U.S. regards North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats as a very serious problem.
The U.S. has previously issued travel alerts on some unstable regions. But the new travel ban is different.
After the ban takes effect, American travelers cannot use their existing passports when entering North Korea. A violation is punished by a fine or imprisonment of up to ten years. However, individuals who seek to travel to North Korea with special purposes, including humanitarian ones, will be allowed to apply for a special validation passport at the State Department. Previously, the U.S. has simply warned its citizens against travel to North Korea, and recommended them to be careful in the country and refrain from any act running counter to the U.S.’ national interest. But this time around, the U.S. will sternly punish violators of the new measure, in a similar way to dealing with those who committed a criminal offense.
The decision on the travel ban was greatly influenced by the shocking death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who visited North Korea in January last year. He was arrested for stealing a political propaganda sign and sentenced to hard labor. After 17 months of detention in the North, he returned home in a coma in June. Unfortunately, he died six days later. After the incident, there were rising calls within the U.S. for a travel ban on North Korea. It seems the U.S. has decided on the travel ban to ensure Warmbier’s case is not repeated and to completely block the so-called “hostage diplomacy” of North Korea. The ban is also expected to affect North Korea’s tourism industry.
4,000 to 5,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year. Among them, 800 to 1,000 are Americans. For North Korea, foreign currency earnings from Western tourists are rather insignificant. But the travel ban is expected to indirectly influence the local tourism sector, as foreigners engaging in commercial businesses or humanitarian programs in North Korea will inevitably be intimidated by the new restriction. Currently, Chinese travelers account for more than 90 percent of foreign tourists visiting North Korea. It remains to be seen whether and how the measure may influence the number of Chinese tourists. Apart from the U.S. travel ban, China could urge its citizens to refrain from visiting North Korea. Overall, the ban will likely affect Pyongyang’s hard currency earnings
A senior official in Pyongyang told the AFP news agency on Tuesday that Washington’s travel ban would not influence North Korea’s tourism business at all. Despite the North’s confident attitude, travel agencies providing North Korean tour packages predict that the North Korean tourism industry will be hit hard by the ban. The recent cancellation of a beer festival in Pyongyang can be understood in this context. Earlier, on July 13, the Korean Central News Agency announced that the second Taedonggang Beer Festival would be held from July 26. On July 17, it also promoted the event, saying that a newly produced wheat beer will be introduced at the festival. But the nation abruptly cancelled the festival, just days before it was due to start.
Last year, a number of foreigners participated in the beer festival. But this year, foreigners who have direct and indirect relations with the U.S. might be discouraged from taking part in the North Korean festival. Some cite the prolonged drought in the nation as a reason for cancellation. But I think North Korea was probably wary of possible economic losses from fewer foreign participants.
Washington’s recent decision comes at a time when the U.S. is considering strong countermeasures against North Korea’s test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. It is easy to predict that the U.S. will step up its pressure on North Korea, and tension between the two nations is also expected to rise.
The U.S. seems to be thinking that pressure and sanctions are the only options for now. It will take every possible measure available to block money from flowing to North Korea. Considering that China holds the key to the sanctions, the U.S. will continue to pressure China while implementing its own sanctions, including imposing a secondary boycott on those who deal with North Korea. In the short term, the travel restriction will lower the possibility of dialogue or exchanges between North Korea and the U.S., and also have some impact on the North Korean economy as well. It is also likely to negatively influence North Korea-U.S. relations and private-level exchanges between the North and the international community.
[Interview] N. Korean Defector Lectures on Inter-Korean Peace
At Seokgot Elementary School in Paju, northwest of Seoul, a teacher kindly answers the children’s questions one by one. The teacher is a North Korean defector named Kim Ja-young. She introduces herself as a “peace instructor” who talks about peace in her lectures.
In the past, many South Korean children regarded North Korea as their enemy, with whom they cannot live together. Due to the negative image of North Korea, newcomers from the North, like me, had a hard time adjusting to South Korean society. Who would be willing to hold dialogue with North Korea if people here only talk negatively about the North? I wanted to help South Koreans change their perception about their northern neighbor, as I thought it is North Korean people, not Kim Jong-un, who represent North Korea. I wanted to help citizens here learn about North Korean people and their lives so they can better understand the Northerners after Korea is unified. In doing so, I believe Korean people will become one and achieve unification more quickly.
Ja-young’s family fled from North Korea 20 years ago. Her mother planned the escape, and 19-year-old Ja-young heard about the plan just one day before their defection. She says she had mixed feelings when she heard why her mother kept her plan secret until the last moment.
At the time, around 1997, some three million people in North Korea died of hunger or diseases such as paratyphoid and typhoid. Without medicine, my family might have died as well. My mother couldn’t understand why she had to bury her own children, even though she had dedicated herself to the regime for all those years. That’s why she decided to escape the country. I asked her why she told me about the escape plan only a day before we left, and she said she was afraid that I might tell a high official or the Security Department. When I asked her what had started her off on that crazy idea, she answered that I might not accept the situation because I had been thoroughly brainwashed since childhood. So, I asked her again what she would have done if I had told her that I would report to the police at the time. She said she would press ahead with her plan, even by sticking socks in my mouth. I was heartbroken. I really hated the North Korean regime that made my family members distrust each other.
The family escaped from the North and arrived in China. They went through a lot of difficulties because they couldn’t speak Chinese and had no acquaintances. But they were not prepared for life in South Korea either.
In North Korea, we received education about South Korea. We thought there was no reason to go to South Korea, which we believed was even poorer than North Korea, after all those hardships. While watching South Korean TV shows, however, we came to know what the South was really like. To us, South Korea was a nation where people could live freely.
Ja-young finally came to South Korea with high expectations. But she was faced with a harsh reality. She worked as a cashier at a large supermarket to earn money. But she often made mistakes due to the unfamiliar South Korean working environment. She lost her confidence. After some time, she was accepted to a local college, with the help of social workers around her. The process was never easy, though. She had to choose which college she would attend and what to study. The whole process was unfamiliar to her.
In North Korea, I simply followed the state’s orders. But in a free, democratic South Korea, I’m supposed to decide everything myself and take responsibility for that. I had never experienced things like that, and it was pretty challenging for me to do that.
Her campus life was not easy, either. The biggest difficulty was the language barrier. When hiding out in China, she accepted that she couldn’t communicate in Chinese and she didn’t really find it stressful. But things were different in South Korea. She couldn’t understand what her classmates were saying, even if they were speaking Korean. It is unsurprising that she lost her confidence at the time. However, a new class gave her a different outlook on life.
A class called “Understanding North Korean Society” completely changed my way of thinking. I realized that being a North Korean is not my fault and not something to be ashamed of. Rather, the fact that I was born in North Korea could provide me with an opportunity to do a lot of things here. A professor said that we should not point the finger at North Korea or treat it like an enemy. The professor also said that we, students, should lead the unification process. He added that for that purpose, we must not be arrogant but understand each other better. I learned a lot from that professor. Since then, I have confidently said that I come from North Korea and I want to tell people about it.
After attending the class, Ja-young found her identity as a North Korean defector and clearly knew what she wanted to do. She landed a job after graduating from college. But from time to time, she has been giving lectures to South Korean students to let them know about North Korea and its people. Thanks to this “peace instructor,” many students have been able to learn various other aspects of North Korea, which they didn’t know before. Ja-young finds her work rewarding and feels responsible for what she is doing.
Some children once said, “I hate North Korea. I don’t want to make friends with North Koreans.” But after listening to my lecture, they said, “North Korea isn’t entirely bad, but I’m now more thankful for living in South Korea.” Hearing that, I think it is a job worth doing. I believe small voices like these will be brought together to achieve something really big. I’d like to express my thanks for every single day in South Korea and work hard all the time, on behalf of countless unfortunate souls who couldn’t make it to South Korea even though they really wished to do so. If I continue to make an effort to live well, I’m sure my future will be brighter.
As indicated in Ja-young’s lectures, South and North Korea should hopefully better understand and communicate with each other.