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North Korea

United States to ban Americans from travelling to North Korea after death of Otto Warmbier

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 1:15am

The Trump administration will ban American citizens from travelling to North Korea following the death of university student Otto Warmbier who passed away after falling into a coma into a North Korean prison, an official said on Friday.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson authorised a “Geographical Travel Restriction” on all Americans’ use of a passport to the country, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Once in effect, US passports will be invalid for travel to, through and in North Korea, and individuals will be required to obtain a passport with a special validation in order to travel to or within North Korea,” Nauert said.

The move was due to “mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” she added.

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 authorised to publicly discuss the decision before it is announced and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Two tour operators that organise 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 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 United States travellers. 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.

North Korea denies torturing Otto Warmbier and accuses US of ‘smear campaign’

In this case, the administration had been considering the step since 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 labour in North Korea in March 2016. He had been accused of stealing a propaganda poster while on a tour of the country.

We criticise North Korea for being isolationist and now we’re helping isolate them
Simon Cockerell, tour operator

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.

Simon Cockerell, Beijing-based general manager of the Koryo Group, one of the leading organisers 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 per cent of all foreign visitors. Westerners make up 5 per cent of total visitors, Americans about 20 per cent of the Western contingent, according to statistics.

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 criticise North Korea for being isolationist and now we’re helping isolate them,” Cockerell said. “That’s not what soft power is about.”