It will soon be illegal for Americans to visit North Korea

Time to leave.
Time to leave.
Image: EPA/How Hwee Young
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The US will soon ban Americans from traveling to North Korea.

Tour operators that offer trips to North Korea learned of the changes from the Swedish embassy, which handles US affairs in North Korea since the US has no embassy in the country. The official announcement will come next week, said Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours.

China-based Young Pioneer Tours wrote on its blog that “the ban will come into force within 30 days of July 27th,” after which “any US national that travels to North Korea will have their passport invalidated by their government.”

In May the US State Department warned Americans against visiting North Korea, noting in a travel advisory:

At least 16 U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea in the past ten years. North Korean authorities have detained those who traveled independently and those who were part of organized tours. Being a member of a group tour or using a tour guide will not prevent North Korean authorities from detaining or arresting you. Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] have not been successful.

Young Pioneers had arranged a five-day trip to Pyongyang for American student Otto Warmbier in December 2015. Accused of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. When the country released him in June on “humanitarian grounds,” he returned to the US in a vegetative state, having spent 17 months in detention. He died days later at the age of 22. Three other US citizens are still in North Korean custody.

North Korea is working toward producing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can hit American cities. On July 4, it test-launched its first ICBM, one that experts determined could have reached Alaska. US intelligence suggests a second ICBM could be launched in a few weeks. Hawaii officials said this week the state will prepare for a possible North Korea nuclear attack.

The US is faced with an array of bad options in dealing with North Korea. A military strike to take out the supreme leader Kim Jong-un could rapidly escalate into an all-out war claiming tens of thousands of lives. The Trump administration has leaned on China—easily North Korea’s largest trading partner—to apply more economic pressure, but Beijing has little interest in sparking instability that could result in a massive refugee crisis at its border. Last week, China said that trade with North Korea grew over 10% in the first six months of 2017 from a year ago.

After the death of Warmbier, Young Pioneers announced last month that it would no longer accept US customers. It wrote:

The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists. There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality and we have been struggling to process the result. Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.

The US government, apparently, agrees.