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After Otto Warmbier's Death, U.S. Plans To Ban Travel To North Korea

Jul 21, 2017
Originally published on July 21, 2017 10:08 pm
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It will soon be illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea. This move comes after the death last month of an American tourist who spent a year and a half in a North Korean jail only to return home in a coma. He died days later. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Otto Warmbier's sad homecoming last month forced the State Department to rethink its travel rules. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now imposing what's called a geographical travel restriction. That makes it illegal to use U.S. passports to go to North Korea. It's a move that's long overdue, says one North Korea watcher, Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

ANTHONY RUGGIERO: North Korea kidnaps Americans and uses them as bargaining chips with their standoff with Washington. And I think, you know, what happened to Otto Warmbier and given how North Korea treats its own citizens, there's a concern that that could happen again.

KELEMEN: According to the State Department, the restrictions will be published in the Federal Register next week and go into effect 30 days later. Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours is now busy calling up Americans who booked trips already through his Chinese-based company and offering them refunds.

SIMON COCKERELL: It's not great for business because, like I said, 20 percent of the client base are American. But there's not much we can do about it, quite frankly.

KELEMEN: Cockerell says in the past, his company has taken about 400 Americans a year to North Korea, and all travelers are briefed on the many rules the North Korean government puts in place for tourists. It was another company, Young Pioneer Tours, that took Otto Warmbier to North Korea. Cockerell says there are still Americans who want to go, and he describes the new travel restrictions as paternalistic.

COCKERELL: And it's a tiny, little bit un-American as well to dictate to people where they can and can't go.

KELEMEN: The geographical travel restrictions have been used in the past in places like Iraq, Libya and Cuba, but State Department officials say as of August, only North Korea will be on this no-go list. There is still a possibility for American aid workers to travel there, but they'll need to apply for a special passport for that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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