In the aftermath of the death of American student Otto Warmbier from injuries sustained during his imprisonment in North Korea, the United States government is barring American citizens from using American passports to travel to North Korea. The State Department cited the high risk of arrest and long-term imprisonment as a primary reason for the ban.
North Korea’s regime has sought to use past American prisoners as bargaining chips in negotiations over its nuclear weapons program. The more Americans who visit North Korea, the greater the chance they might be arrested by the North Korean regime and tortured, imprisoned, or otherwise held hostage.
It’s important to remember that North Korea doesn’t play by normal rules of international behavior. Decades ago North Korea launched a series of raids on Japan, kidnapping Japanese citizens and taking them back to North Korea to teach Japanese or to steal their identities. A country that engages in such behavior can’t be trusted to treat tourists in the same manner that normal countries do.
Yet still, there are many people who want to tour North Korea. Perhaps because the country has been so isolated from the rest of the world, tour companies based in China are offering tours of North Korea to Western tourists. That brings in much-needed money for the North Korean regime and allows tourists to check the ultimate destination off their bucket list.
It isn’t without its risks, however, as many people who have returned from the country can attest. Tourist groups are watched like hawks by soldiers acting as armed guards, and behavior that is seemingly innocuous in the West can quickly earn the ire of the soldiers. That makes touring the country a very risky proposition, which is irresistible to thrill-seekers.
The difficulty for governments, then, is how to try to secure the release of citizens whom the North Korean regime decides to imprison. Americans, in particular, are targets for imprisonment, as they can be used as bargaining chips in future negotiations. Since Kim Jong Un seems intent on going forward with his ballistic missile program and seems to be getting more and more aggressive with his missile tests each time, the risk to American citizens would only increase from here on out, which is why the government decided to take action and keep American citizens out of North Korea.