Banning Travel to North Korea is a Big Mistake

Am I overlooking something, or do these North Korean soldiers look far from threatening?

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?

Half our group with an obligatory group photo in front of the two Kims.

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?

Our government wishes to protect us from people like this? Three generations of picnicking North Koreans stare – but with friendly interest – at our group as we go by.

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.)

Respect for the country’s leader is mandatory in North Korea. But the same is true of requiring respect for the monarchy in Thailand, too.

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

Riding an escalator down to the metro in Pyongyang.  Every part of our tour was totally safe.  There was nothing the government needed to protect us from.

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?

You can bet these two boys had something to tell their parents when they got home!  Don’t unscripted contacts like this help, at a person to person level, grow better international relationships?

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

On stage with a group of locals cheerfully waving and smiling at me. Rather than being hidden away from the locals, at times we were almost the featured attraction!

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

We were very amused to note that all the computers in use here were from Dell.

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 is true that the North Koreans venerate their leaders much more than we do ours. But is our vilification of them just as extreme, in the opposite direction? Is a more moderate appreciation possible?

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?

Some of our group joined with the locals in a mass public dance one evening. It is hard to think these people hold any enmity or hostility to us.

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?

Farmers in the fields with an ox-drawn plow.

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 farmer with an ox-drawn cart, and husked corn spread out on the side of the road to dry.

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

North Koreans are just like us. They get dressed up, they have weddings, they take pictures. And we, in turn, are just like them. Only exposure to each other can help us appreciate this.

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.

22 thoughts on “Banning Travel to North Korea is a Big Mistake”

  1. Been there, done that – abut two ears ago with G;pba; Exchange/Rea;ty Tours. Did not feel endangered at all. Did suspect our hotel rooms were monitored and behaved accordingly. Ifone behaves as a guest, can see no problems. Always remember you are a visitor and there to learn. Same with Cuba. And Middle Eastern countries. Am against any travel prohibitions, including Syria if you really are determined to go.

  2. Excellent, insightful article- thank you David. It seems that the U.S. government is never happy unless it creates an enemy or two in the world.

  3. I support whatever decision President Trump and the US State Department makes about US Citizens travel to North Korea.

  4. I agree 100% that travel restrictions on US citizens are probably beyond US authority and that there shouldn’t be any.

    However, I wouldn’t want to downplay the risks. Iran for instance — a country which I probably regard more benevolently than you do — is widely believed to be holding a number of foreign nationals, most of them dual nationals, hostage in the expectation of ransom money. True or not in Iran’s case, that does appear to be a “thing” in parts of the world where foreign currency is hard to come by for the ruling elite.

    In N. Korea’s case, the somewhat larger risk would be that the authorities might one day choose to use foreign tourists as human shields against attack.

    Finally, there is of course the related risk that US authorities don’t want their hands tied should they in fact want to bomb NK back to the stone age.

    As a footnote — no more than that — I don’t really agree with notions about citizen diplomacy. There were years of that between the USSR and the USA. Fat lot of good it did.

    1. Hi, Fred

      Thanks for your comments.

      There are indeed risks in traveling to North Korea. Whether they are much lower than travel to other ‘safe’ countries, comparable, or much higher is a secondary issue. My point is limited to suggesting that the risks of travel to DPRK (which, as you note yourself, happily and definitely do not include kidnap, unlike many other countries) are no worse than the risks when traveling to many other countries, all of which the State Dept allows us to accept without their interference.

      If it turns out that the travel ban is shortly to be followed by an attack on North Korea by the US, then that certainly excuses the travel ban, although I sincerely hope that an attack is not pending. North Korea is a bit like a cornered animal – it has nowhere to go, and so if challenged, it has to respond with equal and possibly greater aggression, because it has no other ‘out’.

      As for citizen diplomacy, I am not sure. We do know that somehow, the apparently unassailable communist-bloc countries suddenly imploded. I’ll readily agree that there were many factors included in the astonishing events of the late 1980s, but don’t you think that exposure to the west – through smuggled-in media, through occasional direct contact when traveling out of their countries, and also by seeing the reality of westerners in their countries – all played parts in these bloodless revolutions?

      Perhaps the easiest thing to agree on would be that citizen diplomacy is probably a weak rather than powerful tool, but that, on balance, it probably doesn’t hurt and might slightly help advance the cause of peace and understanding.

  5. You admit that there are risks when people travel to North Korea. But what you don’t point out is that if something does go wrong, there is no US Embassy or diplomatic representation to help travelers, and so the downsides are much worse.

    1. Hi

      Thanks for your comments. I’d like to respond in four parts.

      First, other nations also have no diplomatic representation or relations with North Korea, but that doesn’t cause them to prevent their people from traveling to DPRK.

      Second, the US also has no diplomatic relations with Bhutan or Iran, but does not restrict our ability to travel to these other two countries. There are also a much larger number of countries where the US has no diplomatic presence.

      Third, the US has an arrangement such that Sweden provides diplomatic services on the behalf of the US in North Korea.

      Fourth, many people have an unrealistic misunderstanding of what a US Consular official will do if they get into trouble in a foreign country. The reality of what you can hope for in the case of ending up in a foreign jail is sadly very disappointing.

      When a US consular representative finally gets to see you, the very first words out of his mouth will be “I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything to help you”. They can help you find a local attorney (but you’ll have to pay for the attorney yourself) and they’ll pass word to friends and family that you’re in prison. But they can’t interfere with the foreign country’s justice system, they can’t and won’t appear in court on your behalf, and they can’t do anything other than meekly send a polite letter of protest if you are found guilty of a crime you didn’t commit and handed down a ridiculously unfair sentence.

      Here’s the page on the Department of State’s own website that tries to express as positively as possible what they can do, but read down to the list of things they can’t do at the bottom.

      The internet is full to overflowing of egregious miscarriages of justice and appalling incarceration experiences suffered by US nationals in foreign countries where we do have diplomatic relations and representation, and all are sad testimony to how unhelpful the US government actually is if/when things go wrong.

      This is not a reason to ban travel to North Korea.

    2. Good point. Currently Sweden represents US interests in NK. But its three accredited diplomatic staff also acts for a number of other countries, including Canada, Australia, the Nordic region, and handles Schengen visa applications too. So when some fool draws a moustache on Dear Leader’s face on a poster, can we be certain the Swedes will be able to do much?

      1. My point, above, is that no consular representative ever does much.

        I could also add that I’m fairly sure not many Nordic country citizens or Canadians would dream of inking moustaches onto the faces of the Dear Leaders; but as a New Zealander, I’ll anxiously concede that looking after the Australians may indeed take up a fair measure of their time!

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  7. As someone who has no experience with North Korea I readily acknowledge the value of your experiences in the North. Perhaps you can answer my questions and concerns regarding travel to North Korea without the suspected bias I would get from other writers. Your answers will help determine if I choose to visit. (I’m not an American). Were you tended by a minder at all times? Was your photography restricted as it is in some other countries? Did you have freedom to roam and explore? Could you engage in intellectual debates with anyone? Did anyone offer any criticism of their system? Do you think it is true about the three generation prison camps? What degree of freedom of expression did you notice in clothing or hair styles? It was reported that the dear leader executed (purged) defense chief Hyon Yong Chol with an anti-aircraft weapon? Do you think it was true that the entire family, “Jang Song-Thaek’s children, brothers and grandchildren have been condemned to death”?
    Read more:
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook”
    Do you think it could possibly be true as reported, “In August last year, members of a female musical group, Unhasu Orchestra — which included his ex-girlfriend — were reportedly publicly machine-gunned”?

    Read more:
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook
    My final question regards the possibility of reciprocal travel. Can North Koreans visit any country they chose, or are they restricted to approved countries?
    I would like to visit North Korea but I’m not sure if visiting is actually supporting the average citizen or the elites.

    1. Hi, John

      I’ll answer your questions, as best I can.

      If you are indeed considering a trip to North Korea rather than asking what you think to be clever questions to obliquely prove a point, I’d suggest you read my trip diary, and look through the probably 1,000 or more pictures we’ve published online, because many of your questions are also answered there. for the trip diary for the photos

      Were we tended by a minder at all times : Essentially, yes. Our group was split into two halves due to its size, and each half had its own coach and driver, plus two guides – one male and one female.

      Some of our group formed the opinion that the two men were more present as ideological minders, and the women were more the apolitical guides, but one of the two men seemed very approachable and frank, so who only knows. This is discussed in the trip diary.

      Was photography restricted : The thousand or more pictures we have published online (and the many thousands more we did not add) probably answers that without me needing to comment further! We were asked not to take pictures of soldiers or military installations, and told we could photograph anything else. But we do actually have many pictures of both soldiers and military installations that we took.

      At one point, one of the male guides asked we don’t take pictures of what he felt were embarrassing images of poverty, even though the scenes were no different than those throughout everywhere in Asia. Oh – and the other thing is we were asked, if including pictures of the various Kim statues, not to cut off their heads or feet in the photos.

      But, in general, it was a free-for-all, quite unlike what one is encouraged to believe with the many articles that talk utter nonsense about ‘smuggling out forbidden pictures of never-before-seen elements of North Korea’. The pictures we now have published clearly rebut those ridiculous claims. These various issues – and the compromise we reached – are also discussed in the trip diary.

      Did you have freedom to roam and explore : Not really, but some. At the same time, the tours I put together for groups everywhere else in the world also unavoidably deprive the group members of ‘freedom to roam and explore’, because we have timed stops and need to be back at the coach at a specific time.

      We did discuss and vary our itinerary some from the official itinerary, to the point that the two coaches were regularly going in different directions to different places and via different routes due to what the other half-group leader and I variously decided with our guides during each day.

      But we absolutely could not say ‘I’m not going on the tour today, I’m just going to roam around Pyongyang by myself’. So touring similar to in communist times in Russia, for example.

      Could we engage in intellectual debates with anyone? Really??? I’ve traveled the world, I’ve had plenty of drunken discussions in bars, but intellectual debates? With foreigners who don’t speak English?

      We got to know our guides quite well, because they spoke English. We got to know other travelers staying in the same hotel to a certain amount. But locals, at places we’d stop at and be actively touring around for an hour or two at a time – not at all.

      Did anyone offer criticism of their system? They didn’t criticize their country, and we didn’t either. There was an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” that we were there not to criticize but to observe and experience, and in turn, they were not there to try and proselytize or pretend their system to be anything it wasn’t.

      The person who spoke the most about North Korean politics and their Juche system of ideals was me (not to promote but rather to try and explain). On both sides, we could obliquely acknowledge issues and challenges, but we were there as tourists.

      We did feel the political rhetoric was a bit stronger when we went down to the DMZ, but on the other hand, when we also did a DMZ tour from the South Korean side, we were given plenty of rhetoric about how the North Koreans would occasionally and without provocation violate the DMZ treaty. As noted in the trip diary and above, the only violation that we saw, on either side, was a violation by the South, not North, and as for the reality of the Korean War, its origins and issues, you know the saying – the victor gets to write the history. I’ve never critically studied the event, so really can’t comment further, other than to note that the North Koreans struggled not to portray the cease-fire as being a defeat!

      I guess the situation is a bit like talking about Nazi Germany when in Germany – it is very hard to get a German to tell you the reality of how Germans really think about that period in their history, rather than just have them regurgitate politically correct anodyne statements. And similarly it is difficult to politely ask and probe them to try and get beyond the trite truisms and their recitations of statements they think we want to hear.

      The truth of three generation prison camps : How on earth could I – or just about anyone else – comment on that? As I said in the article, I’ve no experience whatsoever of prisons in North Korea.

      In turn, a question to you – what has this got to do with choosing to visit North Korea or not??? Do you decide where you’ll travel based on the country’s penal code? If so, more strength to you, but please don’t try to impose your value system on me and my freedom to choose where I in turn wish to travel.

      Freedom of expression in clothing and hair styles : I suggest you look through our many hundreds of photos and answer that question yourself, although again, what on earth does this question and its answer have to do with deciding to travel there or not?

      As for me, I really don’t focus in on such things. The children wore school uniforms, but that is true of children in many other countries too. At many places, the local guides wore traditional costumes, but that too is far from unusual.

      Without having scientifically sampled anything, I’d consider their range of normal clothing to be similar to other Asian countries. If you look at the photos we’ve published, don’t look at the ones where people have dressed up to do formal things, instead, try and find the pictures of ordinary people on an ordinary day – some of the street pictures we took – for example, perhaps, .

      Various bizarre questions about executions : Why do you ask these questions? How on earth are such issues related to your decision to travel to North Korea or not?

      On the other hand, these are great examples of outlandish untruths originated by the professional DPRK-haters and eagerly echoed by the press.

      Although the anti-aircraft gun story received a lot of gleeful coverage, it was subsequently and much more quietly thoroughly debunked. I can’t find the debunking just now, but here’s a debunking of a similar story of a person being killed by a pack of wild dogs that explains how a single untruth gets picked up and repeated, with each restatement seeming to make it more credible

      As for the other family execution thing, that is none of my purview and did not intrude on my travel experience in any way.

      Reciprocal travel right : I’ve no idea, and again, can’t start to comprehend what relevance this has to your decision to travel there or not. One might go as far as to say that if North Koreans can’t freely travel (and I’m reasonably sure that they can not) then that is all the more reason to bring the west to them.

      Does visiting support the average citizen or the elites? If the elites are bus drivers, food servers in restaurants, housemaids in hotels, and guides working 15 hour days, then for sure, they are being supported by us. Somehow I suspect that we never got within a country mile of any elite people, however, and I further suspect that they have totally different and much more substantial income streams. But this too was not a framing decision for do I/don’t I visit North Korea.

  8. David

    Thank you for the honest reply. Despite the appearance of “trolling”, I first and foremost relied on you, as a businessman, to be an objective spokesman for travel to the DPR. Cutting through all the biased reporting was something I was confident you would be able to do. While I don’t have the time to sift through all the pictures I will try to look at a sample as I’m sure they do reflect a portrait of the North, at least from the tourist perspective.
    As a world traveler I would enjoy visiting North Korea, but as an independent traveler I don’t think it would be possible at this time. Perhaps if all the good work performed by the citizen ambassadors continues there might come a day when tourists have the freedom to roam about the country, or better yet, a united Korea.
    I wish you continued good fortune in your travel and writing career. Your honesty and integrity are highly appreciated.

    1. Hello again, John

      Yes, it is definitely true that North Korea is not yet a good place for an independent traveler, wishing to travel by themselves, not in an organized group.

      Let’s both hope that time will come. 🙂

  9. Beyond the evaluation of personal risk, there is also the issue of ethical responsibility. Here’s an interesting post on that question by a gent who says he spent six months “undercover” in North Korea:

    In particular, he writes:

    “Tourism is for individual enjoyment and generally a hobby for the privileged citizens of first-world nations. So what is there to enjoy in a gulag nation where 25 million citizens are held captive? Casually touring North Korea is akin to hiking at Auschwitz under the Nazis. The propaganda posters, one of which Warmbier had supposedly been trying to steal, might look souvenir-worthy to those who are naive to their political contexts, but they are also the tools, like a swastika, with which the Great Leader regime enslaves its people. When I look at them, I see the blood of the Korean people who perished for generations and will continue to perish. Besides, there is another dark side to such tourism. Those visitors bring in about US$43.6 million per year for the North Korean regime, which would use that to oppress its own people and strengthen its military and nuclear resources.”

    How do we feel about that?

    1. This is an excellent example of a professional Korea-hater at work, although the underlying point raised shouldn’t be ignored.

      His credibility plunges when he claims to have lived in North Korea for six months ‘undercover’. What does that mean? It is a nonsense claim; everyone knew he was there, the only ‘undercover’ element is that he was planning on using his time there to validate his subsequent anti-DPRK diatribes.

      Now let’s look at the ‘facts’ he offers up.

      First, he says that 5,000 western tourists a year contribute $43.6 million to the North Korean regime. That would suggest almost $9,000 per tourist. That is nonsense. The average North Korean tour is five days, and the cost is more commonly less than $2,000. Sure, you’ll pay more than that after the various travel companies add commissions, but the amount that goes to DPRK is less than $2,000 per person. See, for example

      So it seems the writer is exaggerating this by a five-fold factor, maybe even more.

      There is also the claim that this claimed $43.6 million flows directly through to oppressing its own people and strengthening its military and nuclear resources. That is financial nonsense, because much of that money – the vast preponderance – goes towards covering the costs of servicing the tourists. We ate well, we toured around the place, we enjoyed performances (the Mass Games with maybe as many as 100,000 performers surely wasn’t cheap or easy to stage!), and so on. Most of the cost of the tour went to paying for our direct costs, or to paying the wages of the people working in the tourism field.

      Yes, I know that by our supporting these people, that means the government can redirect the money it would have spent supporting them, but certainly my sense was that our presence in no way enabled further oppression, if anything, quite the opposite.

      The actual ‘profit’ component of the tourism, and the benefit which the DPRK government can then flow through to other projects, is anyone’s guess. But if we say that gross tourism proceeds are less than $10 million, perhaps it is fair to say that the ‘profit’ is one or two million dollars, and certainly no more than three million.

      Even if what the writer says is true – and it absolutely utterly is not true – let’s put it in context with the overall North Korean economy. The CIA World Factbook estimates North Korean GDP at $40 billion a year. So western tourism, if $43 million, represents one tenth of one percent of total GDP. If closer to $10 million, the gross value of tourism becomes two or three hundredths of one percent. Is that really a material factor in their economy?

      Now, for the second ‘fact’ quoted. DPRK is a gulag nation where 25 million citizens are held captive. Or so the writer claims.

      I’ve no idea how many citizens are in ‘gulags’ or any other type of prison. But according to the CIA World Factbook, the total population of North Korea is 25.1 million.

      So it seems unlikely that 25 million of its 25.1 million are prisoners.

      These massive distortions of fact give grounds to be concerned at the veracity of the less readily confirmed statements, too. The credibility of the author, and the unbiased nature of his writing, is clearly being challenged by his statements.

      But, even though it is easy to reject the biased diatribe in this article there is a remaining broader philosophical point about the ‘ethical responsibility’ of tourists to only travel to countries with ‘good’ governments. We should consider that.

      The idea that we should only travel to ‘good’ countries of course flies directly in the face of the notion of ‘citizen ambassadors’ where it is thought that our presence may subtly help shape the perception of a hostile nation and its people so it no longer sees us in such hostile terms. It also flies in the face of most aid programs which in some cases seem to be directed to ‘bad’ countries in a hope to in effect bribe them to like us, or make them dependent on our continued support and goodwill.

      There is an equally important reciprocal issue here. Not only do citizen ambassadors help the west to portray themselves in fair terms to opposing regimes, but those citizen ambassadors hold our own governments accountable, too.

      If we go to a place (indeed, such as North Korea) and see for our own eyes that it isn’t as draconian a place as is generally claimed; if we see that Pyongyang is a growing city with a skyline increasingly dominated by modern high-rise buildings and a citizenry that, if not prosperous, is also far from the state of poverty that imbues every part of many African nations, then this helps us see articles such as the one you cite for the biased polemics they are.

      Even more importantly, if we see for ourselves, our first hand experiences, even if limited and filtered, also encourage us to pause before enthusiastically embracing the preferred policies of our political leaders and their own very black and white portrayal of the evils of the DPRK leadership.

      On the other hand, even I practice my own form of limited ethical responsibility. There are some countries I refuse to travel to on principle, because I consider them to be implacably opposed to the west, based on their fundamental value systems. And many people choose to practice ‘ethical investing’ – choosing not to invest in tobacco companies, for example.

      I would simply ask each individual person to make their own individual choice, but not to seek to then impose their individual choice on the rest of their country’s citizens. In the US we are free to choose if we will visit countries or not, with only two exceptions – Cuba, to an increasingly less constrained extent, and now North Korea too.

      That is the heart of my advocacy. I am not saying North Korea is good, oh no, not at all.

      I am simply saying that it is no worse than many other countries in the world, and that our right to travel internationally to other countries should not be abridged by our government for the most specious of reasons, as is the case here.

      I’m not saying everyone should visit North Korea; but I am saying that everyone should have the right to make their own personal choice, and I am further saying that if people do choose to visit the country, the outcome of that journey – as trivially small as each individual visit undoubtedly is – is more likely to be positive than negative, both in North Korea and back home here.

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  11. You make some fair points, but don’t you think the threat to nuke Guam with four missiles means ‘all bets are off’ and it is time to draw our line in the sand and get ready to do something when North Korea continues its lunacy?

    Free speech, free movement, whatever. But this is nuclear war we’re now being threatened with.

    1. Hi, John

      I’ve read about the threat to nuke Guam with four missiles many different places. But I’ve never seen that as a direct quote from North Korea.

      What I have seen are statements by DPRK that it might send four missiles – apparently without warheads – to land in the water, 25 or so miles away from Guam. Somehow, our overly eager press, in their mad rush to pull us into a nuclear war, have decided this is the same as nuking Guam.

      Here’s a moderately fair statement by CNN.

      If there is an actual threat to nuke Guam, not just to launch four missiles to fall harmlessly in the sea some distance away, I’d love to see an authoritative statement to that effect.

      I don’t disagree that we’re on some automaton like march to war, but this is madness, and the continually escalating rhetoric on both sides seems to be taking us in utterly the wrong direction.

      I see it as all the more reason to have more of our people, and hopefully people with more influence than me, to go visit DPRK and realize they have some valid fears and concerns, and aren’t irrational monsters.

      1. The current tensions are actually fairly routine. They tend to coincide with annual US/S Korean military exercises, which this year start in a week’s time (Aug. 21). These usually include “decapitation” exercises — ie, forced regime change rehearsals. Understandably, they make the Pyongyang elite very nervous. The only major difference this time is that the DPRK’s usual crazy war talk is being matched by that of a US president. It’ll quiet down come September. I think we need to consider that the travel ban, like the new UN sanctions, are just symbolic and ultimately hollow gestures — the best responses available under the circumstances. As for nuclear-armed missiles, David’s right: No-one’s said Guam is going to be nuked.

      2. The sanctions are probably symbolic, depending on how the Chinese choose to interpret and adopt/enforce them.

        But the travel ban is far from symbolic. We are up for felony charges if we violate it. Not merely a slap on the wrist, or ‘let off with a warning’. A full-blown felony that could destroy our lives the next time we try to travel anywhere (most countries will refuse to allow people with felonies to visit).

        So if we violate the probably unlawful edit not to visit DPRK, we risk then having our travel liberties curtailed everywhere.

        The impact on DPRK might be symbolic. But the impact on us could be draconian.

      3. As I’ve said above somewhere, I agree the travel ban is wrong. But, technically, while there is still a “ceasefire” in place, the Korean peninsula remains in a state of war. I don’t know what that means legally or with respect to the US constitution — or even whether it means the US itself remains in a state of war with the DPRK — but it does point to at least some grounds for restricting travel there by American tourists. Controversial certainly. But draconian? Not so much.

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