Restrictions imposed on American passport holders over travel to North Korea were extended by the Biden administration after being set to expire on September 1. Extending these restrictions is a missed opportunity to remove an obstacle to principled engagement and humanitarian exchange with North Korea.
These restrictions, introduced by the Trump administration in 2017 and renewed annually, made U.S. passports no longer valid for travel to, in, or through North Korea. Since then, individuals seeking to legally travel to North Korea on a U.S. passport have been required to apply for a special validation passport through the U.S. State Department. These one-time-use passports are “issued on an extremely limited basis” when the State Department deems the “trip is in the national interest.”
As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden pledged to work “to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.” Prior to the travel restrictions, some Korean Americans were able to travel to North Korea to visit their family members still living there. However, with the travel restrictions in place and lack of an agreement between the American and North Korean governments on family reunions, the options for Korean American divided families to reunite in person will be extremely limited.
One impetus for these restrictions was the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, an American student arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster while visiting North Korea as a tourist. Warmbier was held from January 2016 to June 2017 and died in the United States days after being released from North Korea in a coma.
Warmbier was neither the first nor the last American detained in the country. At least one American was held in North Korea after the travel restrictions took effect, though he has since been released and deported after allegations that he entered North Korea illegally. Robert King, the former Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues notes that “[o]ver the last decade or so, some twenty Americans have been detained by the DPRK, in most cases for reasons that are consistent with North Korean laws, but not with those of democratic societies like the United States.”
The travel restrictions have also limited the ability of some non-governmental organizations to provide medical, developmental, and other humanitarian assistance. Advocates for removing the travel restrictions note that the process is too often arbitrary and lacks transparency detailing why applications are denied. Even those individuals who have their applications for special validation passports approved by the State Department may face bureaucratic and financial burdens.
Cultural exchanges, educational engagement, and other people-to-people exchanges are also valuable, especially given the general lack of direct contact between U.S. and North Korean citizens. This people-to-people engagement has been diverse, ranging from former American political leaders visiting North Korea to promote dialogue and understanding to the New York Philharmonic performing a concert in Pyongyang.
Had the Biden administration chosen not to renew these travel restrictions, the initial effect would have been largely be symbolic due to North Korea’s strict self-imposed border controls arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. But easing the restrictions would have enabled direct people-to-people contact or humanitarian assistance in significant areas in the future.
U.S. Special Representative for the DPRK Sung Kim recently wrote that “we are open to exploring meaningful confidence-building initiatives.” Unfortunately, this was a missed opportunity for the administration to demonstrate its commitment to that pledge by removing a significant barrier that could hinder the success of those very confidence-building initiatives.