U.S. to Ban Tourist Visits to North Korea

The U.S. will ban American citizens from traveling to North Korea starting next month, the State Department said Friday, citing growing risks to Americans who venture into the country.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson authorized the decision “due to mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

The travel ban comes just weeks after U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who was detained while on a tour in Pyongyang last year, died after he returned home in June with a severe brain injury.

Mr. Tillerson had told lawmakers after Mr. Warmbier’s death that he was considering a ban. The State Department said Friday those seeking to travel to North Korea for limited humanitarian or other purposes could apply for an exception by using so-called special validation passports. Otherwise, American passports will be considered invalid for use in traveling to or through North Korea.

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The ban will take effect in late August, 30 days after the State Department publishes public notice, which Ms. Nauert said will occur next week.

The ban was signaled earlier Friday by tour operators. The two largest travel companies involved in taking Western tourists to the isolated country, China-based Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, said they learned of the impending ban from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which handles U.S. diplomatic affairs in North Korea and had contacted them separately by phone to inform them of the U.S. decision.

Officers at both companies said the Swedish Embassy told them the U.S. would make the announcement on Thursday next week. Violating the ban would lead to the U.S. government invalidating the traveler’s passport, Young Pioneer said it was told.

Young Pioneer stopped bringing U.S. tourists to North Korea last month following the death of Mr. Warmbier, who went to North Korea in late 2015 on a tour organized by the company.

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At least three Americans are being held in North Korea, though none was a tourist. Two are tied to a Christian university in Pyongyang. At least 16 American citizens have been detained in North Korea over the past decade, according to the State Department.

About 5,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year, with roughly one-fifth of them U.S. citizens, according to Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, which has been bringing visitors to North Korea since 1993.

Tourists visiting North Korea aren’t typically allowed to travel independently and generally join group tours, where they are closely chaperoned by representatives of official state entities.

Tourism companies catering to the demands of tourists with less-conventional tastes have sprung up in recent years in the U.S., Europe, China and Australia. Most tours to North Korea last between three days and two weeks and are focused on Pyongyang, though some have included activities such as train travel, skiing and surfing.

Mr. Cockerell said Friday that the travel ban would be “a big blow to us,” and it would likely reduce the willingness of other Western nationals to travel to North Korea.

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U.K.-incorporated Koryo Tours accounts for about 40% of the overall volume of Western tourists to North Korea, he estimates. Mr. Cockerell criticized the U.S. decision.

“All interactions between North Koreans and Americans, who are very much demonized in the country, will grind to a halt, and the North Koreans will only be left with their own media to portray Americans as they like,” he said.

Some travelers in the U.S. said they thought a ban would be unfair to Americans curious to learn about the closed society.

“I think it’s an overreach on the part of the American government,” said Stacy Stone, 28, of Chattanooga, Tenn., who spent two weeks in North Korea in October, traveling with U.K.-based tour operator Secret Compass. “They need to allow American citizens to make their own choice.”

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