Aid workers, Korean Americans voice concern about new North Korea travel rules

  • Cars line up at a gas station in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2016. North Korea has been condemned and sanctioned for its nuclear ambitions, yet still receives food, fuel and other aid from its neighbors and adversaries. AP file

Washington Post
Published: 8/1/2017 11:23:22 PM

American humanitarian agencies that work in North Korea and Americans with relatives there are expressing grave concerns about the new restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to the country.

The restrictions, due to be announced Wednesday, will require all American citizens who hope to travel to North Korea to apply to the State Department for a passport with a special validation.

This, some say, will mean that previously private and nonpolitical work – sometimes already viewed with suspicion by the regime in Pyongyang – will now have a literal U.S. government seal of approval.

“When the North Koreans look at our delegation, they cannot assume that we got permission from anybody,” said Stephen Linton, an American who heads the Eugene Bell Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that treats thousands of people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis inside North Korea.

His is one of about 25 American humanitarian groups that are active in North Korea, trying to relieve ordinary people’s suffering. The Eugene Bell Foundation administers medicines to TB patients who have proved resistant to previous rounds of treatment, and the treatment must follow a strict schedule to be effective.

“As soon as you have a licensing system, the immediate question is: Why did you get permission?” said Linton, who has been working inside North Korea since 1979. “What was in it for the U.S. government to issue you the permission to come here? And there’s nobody in North Korea that I’ve ever met who would believe that the U.S. government would issue that permission purely for humanitarian reasons.”

The new “geographic travel restriction” will come into effect in 30 days’ time.

It is a direct response to the treatment of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old Ohio man who went to North Korea as a tourist and was arrested there, spending 17 months in a coma before being returned to the United States in June. He died less than a week later.

Three other U.S. citizens – one a businessman and two affiliated with a private American university – remain in North Korean custody.

Every year, about 1,000 Americans had been going to North Korea on organized tours, but tourism will be banned for U.S. citizens starting next month.

This new rule is much stricter than the policy the Trump administration has implemented toward Cuba, which Americans are still allowed to visit if they travel with a licensed tour company under U.S. jurisdiction. Independent travel is still allowed for Americans to visit their family members in Cuba and for religious activities and humanitarian projects.

Just four categories of Americans will be allowed the special endorsed passports: journalists, Red Cross representatives on official missions, humanitarian workers and anyone else whose trip is “in the national interest.”

Those who are approved will be issued “a limited validity U.S. passport permitting one-time travel to North Korea,” according to the State Department.


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