The US State Department has decided that it is ‘too risky’ to allow us our freedom to travel to North Korea (DPRK), and accordingly is outright forbidding US citizens from traveling there.
Prior to this ban, there were no restrictions on visiting, and North Korea eagerly welcomed US visitors, with a trivially simple visa application process and nothing more.
The US is the only country in the world to prohibit travel to North Korea – even South Korea allows its citizens to travel to North Korea. And North Korea is the only country in the world to which the US has outright banned all travel.
Ostensibly this ban is in response to US citizen Otto Warmbier having become mysteriously unwell while imprisoned in North Korea, and dying shortly after being repatriated to the US on humanitarian grounds as a result of his illness.
That was indeed a terrible event and outcome. But how severe is the risk of arbitrary imprisonment, and followed by death, for ordinary tourists, and how does that risk compare to other destinations in the world, or to remaining ‘safely’ in the US itself?
Unlike most people with loud opinions on the topic, I’ve actually been to North Korea. I took a group of 35 Travel Insiders on a six day/five night tour of North Korea in September 2012.
You can see a detailed photo-journal of our North Korean experiences here, and some general questions and answers about North Korea here. If you read those two documents, you’ll know more – and more accurately – about the country than most of our ‘experts’.
And – again unlike most commentators – I’ve no hidden agenda. Sure, I’m no expert, but who is? My guess is that 99% of the people who claim to be experts on North Korea have never been there, so maybe, by their standards if not mine, that makes me an expert of sorts. Most of the others are people who have left North Korea and now seek to dine out on their one-sided stories of life in North Korea, becoming part of the profitable ‘let’s hate North Korea’ community.
I should add that I also don’t wish to be seen as a North Korean apologist. Those people definitely exist, and their tales of the ‘paradise’ of North Korea and its ‘well fed affluent citizenry’ are at least as ridiculous as those who vilify the country, its people and its leaders.
But I do want to ‘set the record straight’ and counter some of the ridiculous and hypocritical nonsense that is regularly regurgitated as if it is certain fact, and which ignores the context that, as bad as it certainly is, North Korea is no worse than dozens of other countries all around the world.
Let’s look at the reasons for the ban first, and then some broader implications and issues.
Are North Korean Prisons Unusually Bad?
I happily have no first-hand knowledge of North Korean prisons, and I’ll readily concede they are probably very nasty places. But this is something common to many other countries for which there are no restrictions on our travel.
Midnight Express makes the point quite clearly about Turkey, and our neighbor, Mexico, apparently has prisons that are unimaginably bad, lawless, and dangerous (for example this and this account) as well as both the police and justice system which by some accounts suffer from significant levels of corruption. Similar prison problems and corruption probably apply to most third world countries, and to major developed nations too – here’s a blood curdling tale of one American’s struggle against Russian corruption and the lethal consequences that ensued.
US prisons aren’t exactly luxury resorts, either. Sure, we don’t expect our prisoners to experience unusual comfort, but we are obliged to afford them the basic courtesies of life, support and sustenance.
Never mind the one death in the North Korean prison. How many Americans die in US prisons each year? The answer – we don’t even know! (A cynic might observe there’s probably a reason that this number is obscured.)
It seems that not only do thousands of people die in US prisons and jails each year, but also that 75% of them die before they’ve even been tried and sentenced. While some of these deaths are for conditions that predate the person’s incarceration, there are abundant shameful stories of people being remanded in custody – prior to trial and sometimes even prior to being arraigned – and having critical medical conditions ignored and being denied treatment. Is it fair that a person not yet charged, tried, convicted or sentenced should risk a death sentence?
As for the prevalence of lesser (but still dreadful) experiences such as prison rape, or severe injuries from attacks by some prisoners on others, one can only guess.
How Severe is the Risk of Random Imprisonment for Visitors to North Korea?
In a word, non-existent. Don’t let (possibly misplaced) outrage about the mysterious illness and death of the American student blind you to the stark fact that he was guilty of the crime he was accused of. Otto Warmbier truly and of his own volition chose to commit a crime. It wasn’t an accident or an unwitting mistake. It was the totally foreseeable outcome of his stupidity; everyone who goes to North Korea is lectured, prior to the journey at a formal briefing session in Beijing, on how there can be severe consequences if you choose to deliberately break North Korean laws.
Although Warmbier was by all accounts intelligent and a successful student, it seems that he may have had too much to drink as part of New Year’s Eve revels in Pyongyang, and upon returning back to the hotel some time after 1am, decided to go into a restricted staff-only part of the hotel and remove a political poster from a wall in a corridor. He didn’t take it away, just left it on the floor.
That doesn’t sound like too heinous a crime, and the sentence he received – 15 years imprisonment – for an apparently drunken act seems extremely severe by US standards, but the guy wasn’t in the US.
He also absolutely did not deserve to die, by anyone’s standards of justice, not even by the North Korean standards. That is appalling. But so too is the death of our own people in our own prisons, by the many thousands, every year. Shouldn’t we be focusing on the things we can fix, first? Shouldn’t we be getting our own house in order before we try and impose our standards on a separate sovereign nation? (And, when we decide it is time to start demanding foreign countries provide fair treatment to US prisoners, is North Korea – with only three Americans now captive – the highest priority target for our ire? Compare that to Mexico, where in 2001 there were over 600 Americans in prison – it would be more but for most crimes and sentences, Americans can apply to serve their time in a US rather than Mexican prison.)
In other countries, things we think to be trivial and harmless may be treated much more severely, and when we visit such countries, it is their system of laws and values that apply, not ours. For example, drug offenses that would get little judicial notice at all in the US can even result in execution in some other countries, and a plethora of ‘normal legal activities’ in the US can result in imprisonment in Muslim nations (kissing or drinking alcohol in public, for example).
This works both ways. Things that are commonplace and normal in other countries can be severely punished in the US – bribing a police officer, for example.
Different laws and penalties apply when we travel to other countries, but that has never previously been a reason to ban Americans from choosing of their own free will to travel wherever they wished.
A key issue is that whereas in some countries, you risk being detained, arrested, and even imprisoned for capricious reasons, and in particular, for the ‘crime’ of not sufficiently bribing public officials, there is no such risk in North Korea. Tourists who comply with the behavior expected of them have a totally trouble-free experience in return, and are treated with deferential respect by the authorities, rather than viewed as tempting targets for extortion.
Tourists who inadvertently violate one of North Korea’s requirements to show, what we’d consider back-home, to be unwarranted and ridiculous respect to the leadership, are not sent to prison, either. I know this because one of my group unwittingly caused grave offense during our stay in North Korea. If you don’t click over to the linked story, the bottom line is simple. No-one went to jail, nothing bad happened.
There have of course been other US citizens imprisoned in North Korea too (the US State Department counts 16 in total for the last ten years, another source suggests 16 in twenty years, and apparently three remain in custody now), although I don’t think any others have died in custody. These other people are generally far from naïve innocent visitors – in some cases it seems they are missionaries who were aggressively pushing the boundaries of what is permissible in North Korea and have pushed too hard and too far.
For normal tourists who feel they can exercise sufficient self-control to not go removing pictures off the walls of the hotel they stay in, a North Korean visit poses less rather than more risk than would be the case in most other non-western countries.
If the US is to start banning us from traveling to other countries, there are plenty of other countries where we face much greater risks of truly unexpected and capricious consequences than North Korea. If dangerous prisons are a consideration, none of us would be allowed to leave home, because the US prisons are plenty dangerous, too.
The Right of Our Government to Forbid Us to Travel
Underlying the travel ban is another point that also deserves examination. It is fair to question – by what authority can the US government take away one of our most precious rights – the freedom to travel?
This question becomes all the more pressing when the ostensible reason for the ban – the danger of visiting there – fails to withstand even the thinnest of commonsense reviews.
The first amendment talks about ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble’, a right that is understood to give us freedom to travel, so as to peaceably assemble where, when, and how we choose. One could also argue that the reciprocal of the right to free speech is a right to listen to speech – speech is no longer effective or free if people are prevented from hearing it, and so we should be allowed to ‘hear’ (in the form of in-person visiting) speech by anyone and anywhere.
Other amendments in our Bill of Rights also touch on, albeit obliquely, our freedom to travel as we choose. Amendment 4 allows us to be secure against unreasonable seizures and has been understood to constrain the ability of the authorities to detain or arrest us, which seems to imply that, absent due process, we have a normal freedom to travel as we wish and where we wish. Amendments 9 and 10 clearly indicate that other non-enumerated rights exist, but that the power of the central government is restricted to only those powers specifically extended, rather than vice versa.
The Constitution itself sets forth these powers of the government in Section 8 of Article 1. Nowhere in Section 8 does it provide any power to the government to restrict the countries we may travel to (and noting how all the founders were either immigrants or the children of recent immigrants, international travel was clearly something they were familiar with).
There is reference to being able to regulate commerce, and of course to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, but it is totally silent on an ability to restrict the right of private citizens to travel wherever in the world they choose.
The travel restrictions that apply to our travel to Cuba have been excused and explained as being part of a trade ban – something that arguably falls within Section 8’s authorization to regulate commerce. But the North Korean travel ban is not being imposed for that reason, it was explained as being to protect our safety. It is unlikely that the constitutional empowerment to provide for the general welfare of the nation can be extended to an ability to prohibit travel to one particular nation due to a largely spurious claim of it being possibly and occasionally dangerous.
Furthermore, the Cuban travel restrictions – imposed by the Department of the Treasury under the authority of the ‘Trading with the Enemy Act’ of 1917, are riddled with loopholes and exclusions, and may currently be in the process of being further liberalized or even abandoned entirely.
We are unaware of any other countries which Americans are forbidden to travel to. There are plenty of countries with warnings urging Americans not to visit (eg Yemen) but we can still travel to all such countries, no matter how severe the risk may be. Foolish as it may be, and dangerous as it definitely is, we can even travel to active war zones in other countries (eg Syria).
Certainly, there are some countries that make it close to impossible for Americans to visit (most notably Saudi Arabia) but while the host country may not wish us to come, the US government does not restrict us from going.
Should We Travel to North Korea – Are We Supporting a Bad Country and Government?
This is a fair question. Are we being ‘disloyal’ to something or someone if we visit any unfriendly and hostile country? It is definitely true that visits to any country boosts that country’s economy and employment as a result of the visit.
On the other hand, of course, just how measurable an economic impact do the approximately 2,000 US visitors to North Korea each year currently have, and who benefits from our visit?
This philosophical question is one we’re less qualified to pronounce upon, so we’ll leave it to two former US Presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, to opine on the matter in the next point.
But, may we observe that, in general, it seems to us to be much harder to countenance war with another country when it is a country that one has visited and experienced, when the people and places seem more ‘real’ and more ‘human’. North Korea changed in my mind from being something akin to the caricature of pure evil that its detractors love to portray it as being, to instead being a more complex and nuanced country, with decent honest hardworking citizens who were more curious about us than actively hating us.
I’ve been in Muslim countries where you palpably feel the hate and resentment exuding out of the local citizens. I’ve been in countries where the entire population seems to be joined together in a national conspiracy to rip-off the wealthy visitors at every turn. I felt none of these things in North Korea. Anxiety, puzzlement, caution – yes. And also politeness and reserved curiosity. But irrational hate? Not at all.
As for who benefits from our visit, it seemed that most of the beneficiaries were the employees of the places we visited, stayed in, or had meals and drinks at. Our understanding is that the ‘trickle down’ economy was such that the money people earned from our visiting wasn’t so much supporting each person individually in a luxurious lifestyle, but rather being spread far and thin, helping that person’s family all have a slightly less severe life.
Dare I hope that my visit helped slightly bring our two countries closer together, at a person to person level? That’s a hope shared not just by me, but also by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, who created the concept of ‘citizen ambassadors’.
Citizen Ambassadors Do More Good than Official Ambassadors
When we were present in North Korea, we were a small spark of friendship and sanity, albeit surrounded by much misapprehension.
But this is the way that freedom has been kindled and developed in other countries – by allowing the citizenry to see that the western people and lifestyle is not a threat, but rather something to admire, to appreciate, and to aspire to.
I’d like to think that none of the people we interacted with ended up feeling we were dreadful bad monsters; and hopefully most decided that we were actually decent human beings, and not as dissimilar to themselves as they’d been lead to believe.
This notion was embraced by President Eisenhower when he said in 1956 when founding the People to People program of ‘citizen ambassadors’
I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations require mutual respect between individuals
It was affirmed by President Kennedy who said of the program
… all assert a single theme – the power of people, acting as individuals, to respond imaginatively to the world’s need for peace
We, as visiting Americans, interacted with regular ordinary North Koreans every day. We saw them and even spoke to them in the parks. On the streets. At the various monuments and memorials we visited, and the concerts and performances we attended. In the hotels and restaurants and stores. While we never had anything other than the lightest of superficial contacts, of course, even that was enough to help the local people notice our wealth, our health, and our friendliness.
So that was what we were modestly achieving as citizen ambassadors. As for the actions of the official US ambassador to North Korea – well, there isn’t one. The US has chosen to have no diplomatic representation in the country at all. Our government has concentrated solely on wielding the ‘stick’ of sanctions, without offering even the slightest taste of the ‘carrot’ of friendship and support.
The utter ineffectiveness of this is no reason to double down on even tighter sanctions; surely it is a reason to reconsider and change strategies entirely.
The Best Type of Alliance and Association is Always Economic
The US should be encouraging its people to travel to North Korea, and should be growing its ties to the country.
There is no reason why North Korea couldn’t become another ‘Asian Tiger’ nation with a booming economy, such that it then finds itself in a position where it simultaneously has a growing middle class and realizes that the economic ties that bind it to the west (and in particular to the US) have become so strong as to make the costs of a conflict unacceptable.
Isn’t this the ultimate source of the ‘goodwill’ between the US and China – the mutual economic need and benefit by both countries to preserve a friendly relationship? Couldn’t the same be created with North Korea?
Wealthy nations with strong middle classes have no stomach for wars, and little liking for dictatorship governments. Wouldn’t making North Korea prosperous, rather than perpetuating its poverty, be the most effective win-win way of ensuring its future friendship?
Is North Korea’s Leadership Crazy?
It seems the only world leader who gets more opprobrium and insult than our own President is the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un. Many people would have us believe that both are crazy madmen!
As for Kim Jong-Un, we are told he spends all his country’s money on developing needless nuclear weapons, while his people starve. Anyone who disagrees with him is thrown into prison.
But how much of this is true?
The North Korean leadership is no more corrupt and no more stupid than that of many other countries all around the world, and their acts to develop nuclear weapons are rational rather than irrational. Most of all, the ability of the leadership to impose their biased and selective world-view on their citizens is enhanced when there are fewer westerners actually present in North Korea to present a very tangible rebuttal of their claims.
Sure, they lead an extravagant lifestyle while some in their country are starving. However, is that any different to the US? Consider our former President, someone who went from being a community organizer to now being able to buy an $8.1 million nine bedroom house in DC (to say nothing of another home in Chicago, one in Rancho Mirage, CA, and perhaps properties in Hawaii and New York too), while enjoying a lifestyle of luxury jet-setting around the world. At the same time, we have plenty of starving people in our country too.
Doesn’t the excuse ‘the relatively small cost of an imperial presidency would have no effect on the huge social problems we suffer’ apply as much to North Korea as it does to the United States?
Where is the real difference between our leaders who somehow leave public office millions of dollars richer, and the leaders of other countries who also amass and enjoy enormous wealth and extravagant lifestyles?
Perhaps the pathways to the riches and the luxuries are different, but the outcomes are the same. In one country, there is corruption and bribery. In the other, there are speaking fees, wealthy friends, and book deals. In one country, there are off-shore bank accounts. In the other – hmmm, quite possibly also off-shore bank accounts, and on-shore trusts and foundations.
In one country, there are servants and military guards. In the other country, there are better paid staff and the Secret Service. In one country there are palaces. In the other country, there is the White House, Camp David, 20+ car motorcades and 747 jets.
The similarities eclipse the differences.
What About North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons?
We don’t deny the very real threat of nuclear attack by North Korea.
But is this threat in the form of a possible first strike by them, or in response to an attack by us on North Korea? Our sense – our hope – is that they have no reason to launch a first strike attack on us, and would not do so. But if we attack them, should we be astonished if they do all they can to resist, and if they match our actions on their homeland with a response on our homeland, too?
The surprising truth of nuclear weapons is that they are not an expensive ‘luxury’ for a weak and impoverished country to consider. They are the cheapest form of creating a credible military force when opposing forces are likely to be enormously more powerful.
That is why North Korea is developing its nuclear capabilities – because it lacks the economic and population base to create any other form of credible defense force to defend against a feared future attack by either South Korea and/or the US. While on paper, the North Korean Army has more active duty troops than the South, they are poorly trained and poorly equipped, and far less effective. In addition, the South Koreans have an enormous superiority in every respect when it comes to having modern tanks, planes, and ships.
We also note that although we hear a lot about ‘provocations’ by the North Koreans, not so much coverage is given to provocations by ‘our side’. However, when we traveled down to the DMZ while in North Korea, we saw an apparent violation of the DMZ with a US or South Korean helicopter operating within 100 yards or so of the border, right inside the DMZ (see the photo and discussion on this page of my trip diary/photo journal). There is no way the North Koreans could have staged that for us.
We might think that we would never attack North Korea – although it is difficult to hold that thought with the present escalating levels of rhetoric on our side; but the North Koreans are gravely concerned about what they see as a credible risk. They feel compelled to prepare for such an event.
Will this travel ban help discourage North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles? No, of course not; if anything, it will encourage the North Koreans to accelerate their programs still further. Withdrawing your citizens from a country is a traditional pre-cursor to initiating an attack.
The geo-political reality of nuclear weapons is that they are an essential tool for weak countries to have when being challenged by strong countries. Every part of the US posturing to North Korea has been in the form of threats, and it is an entirely rational act on the part of the country’s leadership to feel concerned that the US may seek to impose regime change on their country – something the US has done in many other countries in the past.
There is no way that North Korea could win a conventional conflict with the US; its only rational and sensible strategy is to develop nuclear weapons.
Is The Failed North Korean Economy Proof of the Perfidy of their Government and Political System?
It is true that the North Korean economy is massively underperforming compared to that of South Korea, with per capita incomes and general quality of life much lower in the North than the South. But is that wholly a reflection on the North Korean leadership?
After the Korean war (1950 – 1953) how many bazillions of dollars flooded into South Korea from the US? US support has been given to South Korea in many different forms (we’re not criticizing any of it, merely pointing to its existence). Direct foreign aid through the many different US government programs. Commercial investment into business ventures. Technology transfers. Military aid. The presence of US military forces and the boost to the local economy that comes from their presence. Buying South Korean goods. Private aid groups and their support. Plus of course, the benefits of unconstrained bilateral trade and tourism.
But whereas we have directly and indirectly supported South Korea for 65 years, when it comes to North Korea, we bully the world into imposing trade sanctions on the country. Is it any wonder the North Korean economy is so poor?
We don’t think it is accurate to solely equate the poor North Korean economy with its form of government. Maybe all that it indicates is the harm we have been inflicting on the ordinary population of North Korea for decades.
Sure, when we read about millions of North Koreans dying of starvation in some years when their harvests are poor, of course we recoil in horror at how a tiny coterie of elite are still leading comfortable lives in their positions of power in the country. Articles such as this, with the headline ‘How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea’ don’t hesitate to place the blame on how North Korea (mis)manages its agricultural programs. Much of that criticism is true, but how often do we question whether part of the reason for poor harvests is due to our refusals to sell them farm machinery, fertilizers, harvesting, distribution and storage equipment, know-how, and our refusal to allow our own agricultural companies to do business there?
Without firing a shot, our imposition of trade sanctions means we’re in part responsible for the deaths of millions of North Koreans.
Another Clue About How to Handle North Korea
With all due respect to our State Department officials in ‘Foggy Bottom’, probably the people and country with the greatest expertise about how to deal with North Korea – and the country with the greatest ‘skin in the game’, is South Korea.
They’ve just had a change of government, and their new leadership was elected on a policy of rapprochement and a closer peaceable engagement with North Korea, and a de-escalation of aggressive rhetoric.
The US is pretty much out at one extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to the general international community’s approach to North Korea. That of course neither makes us right nor wrong, but it is interesting to note that our approach is currently diverging from that of South Korea.
There’s No Point to Visit North Korea – They Only Show the Good Stuff
A common criticism of tours to North Korea is that the itineraries and the routes are carefully selected to only showcase the best parts of North Korea. This is simultaneously right, wrong, and normal.
With very few exceptions, when have you ever gone on any tour, anywhere, that features the ghettos, the slums, the ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ parts of the cities you visit?
I’ve been on tours all around the world, and I’ve designed tour routes all around the world, and I’ve never been on one that didn’t do the best it could to showcase the ‘good’ and ‘interesting’ and ‘nice’ parts of the regions being visited. Only some types of ‘adventure/danger’ touring go out of their way to put their tour members at risk.
Think of the last time you did a day tour in a major European city – what did you see? Have you been on a tour of Paris that includes a visit to the Muslim banlieues, in a perpetual simmering state of unrest and near riot? In Los Angeles, you can do a regular day tour, or a ‘homes of the stars’ tour of Hollywood, but you know for sure you’re never going to go anywhere near Chesterfield Square or Harvard Park, which have violent crime rates 100 times greater than in the areas you will be (comparatively) safely visiting.
So who is surprised that North Korea wishes to show the best parts of its country to its foreign visitors?
On the other hand, during the course of a typical five-day tour, including several hundred miles of travel out of Pyongyang to other towns, and through the open countryside, you of course see sights more closely approximating the reality of life and lifestyles in the country. You’ll see horse-drawn wagons, and people working in the fields without the aid of modern machinery. You’ll get a sense that the standards of living in the countryside are much lower than they are in Pyongyang.
But who is shocked by this? What you see is no different to what you’ll see in the economic powerhouses of China and South Korea, and in most of the rest of South East Asia, too. Most people, particularly in the ‘developing’ countries, lead lifestyles which by our standards equate to abject poverty and squalor.
What We Should Be Doing
We need to finish our war with North Korea.
It is extraordinary that 65 years after the cessation of hostilities, we’ve not yet been able to negotiate a peace treaty. There are several reasons for this, primarily revolving around a shared unwillingness by both North and South Korea to formally accept the notion of two separate sovereign Korean states. They both want unification, but they each wish to perpetuate their system of government, rather than accept the other country’s regime.
Whether or not a peace agreement can be concluded, the former principal participants in the conflict – US, South Korea and North Korea – need to ensure that the current situation which anticipates (and therefore almost encourages) a sudden return to active hostilities breaking out at any minute is replaced by a more stable peace.
Why not do this by expanding the DMZ from 2.5 miles to 25 miles or even to 250 miles? With both capitals – Seoul and Pyongyang – relatively close to the current border (25 and 85 miles, respectively), moving artillery and other forces much further away from the border reduces the perceived immediate threats for both sides. The oft-cited claim of there being thousands of artillery pieces ready to start raining rounds on Seoul with almost no warning would cease to have its validity, and the latest developments in satellite monitoring make it easy to enforce such extended zones.
After the abject failure of aggressive economic hostilities, isn’t it time to try the other approach. Make it so North Korea stands to lose more if it breaks out of a ‘loving economic embrace’ with South Korea and the west in general, rather than at present, where it has nothing to lose, no matter what it does or how much of an international pariah it allows itself to be and become.
Most of all, rather than prohibiting US travel to North Korea, isn’t it time to re-invigorate the concept of ‘citizen ambassadors’ and to fill North Korea with walking talking irrefutable examples of how people in the west are ordinary normal people, and eager to be friends rather than enemies.