In the wake of the death of the American student, Otto Warmbier, the U.S. will impose a ban on travel to North Korea. It is expected to become effective in about a month. Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, the two largest travel companies that arrange trips from the U.S. to North Korea, indicated this morning that they had received separate phone calls informing them of the ban. A formal announcement about the change in policy is expected next Thursday, July 27, which is the anniversary of the end of the Korean War. The ban will become effective 30 days later. The passport of anyone violating the ban will be invalidated by the U.S. government.
Young Pioneer Tours, who organized the tour that Otto Warmbier was on, had already announced that they would no longer be taking travelers to North Korea. They have not disclosed who notified them of the government ban, according to a report from PRI.
Koryo Tours general manager Simon Cockerell stated that his organization was notified by the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which handles diplomatic affairs for the U.S. in North Korea. Koryo provides U.S. travel to North Korea for about 300 to 400 individuals every year. Cockerell states that they have already begun reaching out to their customers whose existing plans will be impacted by the ban.
The draft of the legislation that will impose the ban states that as of May of this year, at least 17 Americans had been detained in North Korea. Three of them (businessman Kim Dong Chul and professors Kim Sang Duk and Kim Hak Song) remain in detention.
In April 2016, Chul was found guilty of espionage and was sentenced to 10 years hard labor. Duk was arrested in April of this year on charges of trying to overthrow the government. He has not been sentenced. Song was arrested in May and was charged with “hostile acts” toward the North Korea regime. He also has not been sentenced.
Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster. He was returned to the U.S. in a coma in June after serving 18 months of his sentence. He had severe brain damage and died days later. His death was widely reported and is believed to have played some role in the decision to implement the travel ban.
The U.S. has historically discouraged travel to the country, as reported by International Business Times. The government has warned of the risk of arrest and detention. As recently as May 9, the government issued a statement warning that traveling as part of a group tour does not lessen this risk.
“Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, the U.S. government has no means to provide normal consular services to U.S. citizens in North Korea. Possession of any media, either physical or electronic, that is critical of the DPRK government or its leaders is considered a criminal act punishable by long-term detention in hard labor camps and heavy fines.”
It is currently unknown whether or not the North Korea travel ban applies to humanitarian and educational work and how long it will be in effect.
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