Stu­dent death leads U.S. to ban travel to N. Korea

800 to 1,000 Amer­i­cans said to visit an­nu­ally

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - MATTHEW LEE AND JOSH LEDERMAN In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Christopher Bodeen of The Associated Press.

WASH­ING­TON — Amer­i­can cit­i­zens will be barred by the U.S. from trav­el­ing to North Korea be­gin­ning next month af­ter a pro­hi­bi­tion on us­ing U.S. pass­ports to en­ter the coun­try, the State Depart­ment said Fri­day.

Secretary of State Rex Tiller­son de­cided to im­pose a “ge­o­graph­i­cal travel re­stric­tion” on North Korea af­ter the death last month of Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity stu­dent Otto Warm­bier, who fell into a coma while in North Korean cus­tody. The ban also comes amid height­ened U.S. con­cern about Py­ongyang’s re­cent ad­vance­ments in its nu­clear weapons and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams.

Fig­ures on how many Amer­i­cans visit North Korea are dif­fi­cult for even the U.S. gov­ern­ment to ob­tain. But Si­mon Cock­erell of the Ko­ryo Group, one of the lead­ing or­ga­niz­ers of guided tours to the coun­try, said 800 to 1,000 Amer­i­cans visit an­nu­ally and will be af­fected.

State Depart­ment spokesman Heather Nauert said in a state­ment, “Due to mount­ing con­cerns over the se­ri­ous risk of ar­rest and long-term de­ten­tion un­der North Korea’s sys­tem of law en­force­ment, the secretary has au­tho­rized a Ge­o­graph­i­cal Travel Re­stric­tion on all U.S. ci­ti­zen na­tion­als’ use of a pass­port to travel in, through or to North Korea.”

The re­stric­tion will take ef­fect in late Au­gust, 30 days af­ter it is pub­lished as a le­gal no­tice in the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter.

Once it takes ef­fect, Amer­i­cans want­ing to travel to North Korea may do so legally only with a “spe­cial val­i­da­tion pass­port,” which will be granted by the State Depart­ment on a case-by-case ba­sis for “cer­tain lim­ited hu­man­i­tar­ian or other pur­poses,” the state­ment said.

It did not elab­o­rate on what “other pur­poses” the depart­ment would con­sider. Amer­i­cans who vi­o­late the re­stric­tion could face a fine and up to 10 years in prison for a first of­fense.

The U.S. strongly warns Amer­i­cans against trav­el­ing to North Korea but has not un­til now pro­hib­ited trips, de­spite other sanc­tions tar­get­ing the coun­try. Amer­i­cans who ven­ture there typ­i­cally travel from China, where sev­eral tour groups mar­ket trips to ad­ven­ture-seek­ers.

Nearly all Amer­i­cans who have gone to North Korea have left with­out in­ci­dent. But some have been seized and given dra­co­nian sen­tences for seem­ingly mi­nor of­fenses. Over the past decade, at least 16 U.S. cit­i­zens have been de­tained, of­fi­cials say.

The travel ban comes as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion searches for more ef­fec­tive ways to ramp up pres­sure on North Korea over its nu­clear weapons pro­gram. Py­ongyang’s re­cent suc­cess­ful test of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile — the first by the North — has cre­ated even more ur­gency as the U.S. seeks to stop North Korea be­fore it can mas­ter the com­plex process of mount­ing a nu­clear war­head ca­pa­ble of hit­ting the United States.

Pres­i­dent Donald Trump has ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that his ini­tial strat­egy — en­list­ing China’s in­flu­ence to squeeze the North eco­nom­i­cally and diplo­mat­i­cally — has not yielded ma­jor re­sults. Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing other eco­nomic steps, in­clud­ing “sec­ondary sanc­tions” that could tar­get com­pa­nies and banks, mostly in China, that con­duct le­git­i­mate busi­ness with North Korea, of­fi­cials say.

Un­der U.S. law, the secretary of state has the au­thor­ity to des­ig­nate pass­ports as re­stricted for travel to coun­tries with which the United States is at war, when armed hos­til­i­ties are in progress, or when there is im­mi­nent dan­ger to the pub­lic health or phys­i­cal se­cu­rity of U.S. trav­el­ers.

Since 1967, such bans have been im­posed in­ter­mit­tently on coun­tries in­clud­ing Al­ge­ria, Iraq, Le­banon, Libya, Su­dan, Cuba and North Viet­nam. The U.S. doesn’t cur­rently pro­hibit its pass­ports from be­ing used to travel to any coun­tries, even though fi­nan­cial re­stric­tions limit U.S. travel to Cuba and else­where.

Warm­bier, who died af­ter be­ing med­i­cally evac­u­ated in a coma from North Korea last month, suf­fered a se­vere neu­ro­log­i­cal in­jury from an un­known cause while in cus­tody. Rel­a­tives said they were told that 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 United States, 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.

Tiller­son had been weigh­ing a North Korea travel ban since late April, when Amer­i­can teacher Tony Kim was de­tained in Py­ongyang, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cial. Those de­lib­er­a­tions gained even more ur­gency af­ter Warm­bier’s death. Law­mak­ers in Congress have also pushed leg­isla­tive so­lu­tions to try to ban travel to the North.

Two tour op­er­a­tors that or­ga­nize group trips to North Korea said they had al­ready been in­formed of the de­ci­sion by of­fi­cials from Swe­den, which rep­re­sents U.S. in­ter­ests in North Korea be­cause the two coun­tries lack diplo­matic re­la­tions.

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.

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