On July 27, the State Department officially revealed their plan to prohibit U.S. citizens from travelling to North Korea beginning September 1. While this is a setback for U.S. citizens with a desire to visit the hermit kingdom, the reasoning behind the travel ban by the State Department is sound. Since 2009, North Korea has detained over ten U.S. citizens for illegally crossing the border, unauthorized religious activity, and anti-state behavior. The travel of U.S. citizens to North Korea has been discouraged due to the severity of punishment and the regime’s alleged use of detained U.S. citizens as a bargaining chips for diplomatic concessions. With the recent passing of Otto Warmbier on June 18, the State Department has pursued the travel ban to protect the lives of U.S. citizens. Additionally, there are concerns within Washington that Pyongyang is using profits from tourism to fund North Korea’s weapon programs. The U.S. government views North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology as a threat to national security. While this development is not an immediate danger to the U.S., it is a major threat to a key U.S. treaty ally, South Korea. North Korea has the potential to develop weapons that could pose a threat to the U.S. mainland. On July 4, North Korea came closer to posing a greater danger to the U.S. with the successful test of their first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. With Pyongyang’s continued aggressive rhetoric towards the U.S., North Korea’s weapons programs will be a great concern for U.S. foreign policy. Creating a travel ban on North Korea would theoretically decrease the amount of funds available for North Korea’s weapon programs.
The reasoning behind the State Department’s travel ban is sound, but there is concern that banning American NGOs from entering North Korea will minimize U.S. soft power presence in North Korea. Providing humanitarian aid, education, and cultural exchanges has frequently provided NGOs with an opportunity to engage with the locals, which they regard as an important opportunity to challenge misperceptions of the United States. In an NK News article, Alf Evans from the United Kingdom accounted that the locals that he encountered came to understand that the antagonistic portrayal of foreigners is not true. U.S. NGOs therefore believe that their work will create goodwill, a need to cooperate, and an incentive to establish peaceful relations in North Koreans. Their argument is not without merit as there is a long and strong history of soft power influencing change in other countries. Christian missionaries from the U.S. played an important role in the transition from the Chinese feudal government to a republican government in the early 20th century. These missionaries established schools that influenced the Chinese, such as revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen, to appreciate and have a desire for democratic values. More recently, cultural exchange groups such as the U.S. Jazz Ambassadors have played a significant role in creating a positive image for the U.S. Their simple presence in the Soviet bloc conflicted with artificially created perceptions of American society, which played an important role in transitioning the eastern bloc into democratic states. It does seem that the State Department still recognizes the benefits of having their people engage with North Koreans. The State Department has created a clause in their travel ban that would allow certain individuals to receive a special validation to travel to North Korea.
Contrary opinion would quickly argue that allowing U.S. NGOs to continue travelling to North Korea would put U.S. citizens in apparent danger. Many Americans fear that since North Korea is a police state they would fabricate a crime against U.S. citizens if they deemed it necessary. However, up until now that has not necessarily been the case. The punishment imposed on U.S. detainees is indeed severe when compared to the U.S. justice system. However, North Korean government officials were not acting subjectively when they detained U.S. citizens. Crossing the border illegally is an offense that would lead to detainment in most modern states and Pyongyang has made it very clear that anti-state activity, such as criticism against the Kim family and plans to overthrow the government, is extremely frowned upon. Requiring NGOs to receive permission to travel to North Korea can ensure that citizens travelling to North Korea are aware of the laws that will be imposed on them and that they have not committed any offenses against the Kim regime. For example, the State Department can prevent citizens who have been working with North Korean refugees from travelling to North Korea. Additionally, the State Department can ensure that citizens who choose to travel to North Korea understand that they do not have the freedom to criticize the leadership or vandalize the propaganda artwork.
The State Department can permit NGOs to continue their work in North Korea and have a meaningful impact on the locals while creating a guideline that could be used to protect U.S. citizens who travel to North Korea. However, realistically North Korea is not like the African, South American, and Eastern bloc states in which U.S. soft power was very effective. Since the 1990s, the Kim regime has allowed international NGOs to enter North Korea due to poor economic and social conditions that it is unable to address on its own. However, the regime’s understanding of the dangers of information has frequently restricted the accessibility of NGOs. Humanitarian workers have often commented on how limitations have hindered their ability to properly engage with North Koreans. For example, Andrew Natsios, author of the Great North Korean Famine, commented that during his work during the mid-1990s, North Korean officials would go as far as to isolate a village from humanitarian workers when visiting a site. After years of work and gaining trust from the regime, it is possible for NGOs to receive privileges. For example, NGOs may gain access to more severely stricken areas of North Korea. However, the regime still maintains control over their activities such as who they can meet and what they are able to say. Additionally, American citizen’s lives will always be in danger in North Korea no matter what kind of safeguards the State Department puts in place. With increased provocations from the North, it is quite possible that the regime may become desperate and detain U.S. citizens for little reason. One concern is that if a serious conflict were to erupt, U.S. citizens in the country could easily be used as blackmail. Earlier this year, Pyongyang barred Malaysian diplomats and citizens from leaving North Korea over alleged concerns that their diplomats and citizens may be brought into custody after the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Another reason may include the recovery of Kim Jong-Nam’s body. This creates a clear precedent that Pyongyang is not afraid to hold citizens of another country (even friendly ones) hostage when political conflicts occur.
American NGOs and soft power have in many cases challenged negative perceptions of the U.S. and created meaningful relationships with the locals. However, the restrictions applied to foreigners have hindered U.S. citizens from having an effective influence on North Korean society and ultimately a change in governmental policies. Furthermore, no matter what safeguards the State Department creates, U.S. citizen’s lives will be in danger in North Korea if the Kim regime is in power. While continuing exchanges with North Korean locals is highly desirable, the U.S. travel ban is sound and the State Department should rarely make exceptions to U.S. citizens wishing to participate in a humanitarian activity, citizen diplomacy, or cultural exchanges.
Casey is a graduate student in the Masters of International Policy and Practice program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with a regional focus in the Asia-Pacific, particularly North Korea. He has experience in researching and writing about economic and developmental issues related to North Korea.