It’s easier for American tourists to travel to North Korea than to Cuba. It’s also more dangerous, as the death last week of college student Otto Warmbier after 17 months of North Korean captivity shows.
But never mind the absurdity of President Donald Trump’s reimposition of travel restrictions to a relatively open and safe island 90 miles off the American coast. To prevent future deaths and protect U.S. national security, Congress should ban U.S. tourist travel to Kim Jong Un’s reclusive police state.
True, North Korea is not exactly a popular destination for U.S. tourists. Of the 100,000 foreigners who visited North Korea in 2016, slightly more than 1 percent were American (most were Chinese). North Korea’s efforts to spark a tourist boom – including by loosening its restrictions on U.S. tourists in 2010 – have been a bust.
What U.S. travelers to North Korea have provided the regime, unfortunately, is a ready supply of hostages. These Americans are then used as pawns in diplomatic negotiations with the U.S. Over the last decade, at least 17 U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea, and three remain in captivity.
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A bipartisan bill in the House would ban U.S. tourist travel and penalize those who seek to arrange it. (Travel for other purposes – humanitarian assistance, for instance – would still be possible on a case-by-case basis.) Congress should pass it speedily.
The U.S. should also make clear to South Korea that, under current conditions, plans to use a North Korean ski resort in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul would be seen less as a peace gesture to the North than as a slap in the face to Americans.