American travel to North Korea soon to be banned, officials say

Motivated by the recent death of university student Otto Warmbier, the restriction will affect the nearly 1,000 Americans who travel to North Korea annually.

Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Feb. 29, 2016. White House officials say that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will designate American passports as restricted for travel to North Korea, following Mr. Warmbier's passing after he went into a coma in a North Korean prison.

United States officials say the Trump administration will ban American citizens from traveling to North Korea following the death of university student Otto Warmbier who passed away after falling into a coma in a North Korean prison.

The officials said Friday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had decided to impose "geographic travel restriction" for North Korea, which would make the use of US passports to enter the country illegal. They said the restriction would go into effect 30 days after a notice is published in the Federal Register, but it was not immediately clear when that would be. There was no announcement in Friday's editions of the government publication. The officials were not authorized to publicly discuss the decision before it is announced and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Two tour operators that organize group trips to North Korea said they had already been informed of the decision.

Under US law, the secretary of State has the authority to designate passports as restricted for travel to countries with which the US is at war, when armed hostilities are in progress, or when there is imminent danger to the public health or physical security of US travelers. Geographic travel restrictions are rare but have been used by numerous administrations in the past for countries where it has been determined to be unsafe. Since 1967, such bans have been imposed intermittently on countries such as Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Cuba, and North Vietnam.

In this case, the administration had been considering the step since Mr. Warmbier died after being medically evacuated in a coma from North Korea last month. Warmbier suffered a severe neurological injury from an unknown cause while in custody. Relatives said they were told the 22-year-old University of Virginia student had been in a coma since shortly after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea in March 2016. He had been accused of stealing a propaganda poster while on a tour of the country.

The US, South Korea, and others often accuse North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions. At least three other Americans remain in custody in the North.

Simon Cockerell, Beijing-based general manager of the Koryo Group, one of the leading organizers of guided tours to North Korea, said the ban would affect 800-1,000 Americans who visit North Korea annually. Although Pyongyang does not publish exact figures, Americans are thought to account for a mere 1 percent of all foreign visitors. Westerners make up 5 percent of total visitors, Americans about 20 percent of the Western contingent, according to statistics.

Mr. Cockerell said the ban would likely have a tangible impact on business for his and similar outfits, and said that would turn back the clock on engagement with the North.

"It's unfortunate because we criticize North Korea for being isolationist and now we're helping isolate them," Cockerell said. "That's not what soft power is about."

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