The Cable

Spring Break in Pyongyang Is Cancelled

In the wake of an American student’s death, the U.S. decides to cut off travel to North Korea.

A uniformed tour guide gestures to tourists outside the War Museum in Pyongyang on October 9, 2015. North Korea is gearing up for a lavish celebration marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party on October 10.     AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones        (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
A uniformed tour guide gestures to tourists outside the War Museum in Pyongyang on October 9, 2015. North Korea is gearing up for a lavish celebration marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party on October 10. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States plans to ban Americans from travelling to North Korea, saying there is a growing threat of long-term detention and arrests, the State Department said Friday.

The ban comes on the heels of the death of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. student who travelled with Young Pioneer Tours to North Korea in 2016. He was arrested by the North Korean government for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor. Warmbier was released in June after the U.S. government discovered that he was in a coma. He died a week after his return to the United States.

The restriction on travel to the pariah state will become official 30 days after a notice is published in the Federal Register next week, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Two major touring companies, Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours were the first to publish the news of the ban. They were tipped off by the Swedish embassy, which liaises with North Korea for the United States because Washington has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

“After the 30 day grace period any US national that travels to North Korea will have their passport invalidated by the government,” Young Pioneer Tours wrote in a statement on Friday. Upon violation of the ban, an American citizen’s passport could be cancelled.

Those looking to travel to North Korea for “certain limited humanitarian or other purposes” will be required to apply to the State Department for a special validation passport, the State Department said.  

In the wake of Warmbier’s detention, lawmakers from both parties have been urging a travel ban. Some members of Congress say they are puzzled why a travel ban had not been imposed long ago, arguing that it provided the North Korean regime with a way to gain leverage over Washington with American hostages.

Tensions between North Korea and the U.S. have spiked since North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile and flouted U.N. prohibitions on missile launches.

North Korea recently launched a tourism website called DPR Korea Tour that encourages foreigners to visit the country. The website advertises beaches where “the water is not so deep, yet clear, the sand is as white as snow,” and “the sea sometimes runs high in some districts, thus giving favourable conditions for surfing,” according to a translation by NPR.

Tourist agencies say that the ban won’t make much of a difference for the regime, which is not exactly known as a hotspot for travellers. “Tourism revenue is negligible to say the least,” Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours told the New York Times. “I doubt the central exchequer is tightening his belt because of the loss of tourism.”

In the meantime the Swedish embassy is encouraging all U.S. citizens to depart North Korea immediately, Young Pioneer Tours told the BBC. The embassy is currently trying to figure out how many U.S. citizens remain in the country.

Tourist groups say that as many as 1,000 Americans visit the North every year.

Right now, three U.S. citizens remain in custody: 62-year-old naturalized citizen Kim Dong-chul who is sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for spying, a Korean-American professor Kim Sang-duk, the reasons for his arrest are still unclear, and Kim Hak-song, who worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and was arrested on “suspicion of hostile acts against the state,” the BBC reported.

Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

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