North Korea likely hasn’t ranked high on your list of potential vacation destinations in recent years, perhaps because of the oppressive government regime, the scarcity of food, or the high likelihood that you could be imprisoned indefinitely over something as simple as taking a poster off of a wall.  One would think, then, that the State Department’s recent announcement that Americans would be banned from traveling to the reclusive state wouldn’t surprise anyone, including the North Korean officials that are still currently holding three American citizens in their prisons.

It would seem such an assumption would be wrong, however, as North Korea has issued a strange series of statements regarding the travel ban.

Now is [the] time for the Trump administration to come to its senses and make a decision to abandon its hostile policy,” KCNA quoted the North Korean spokesman as saying.  “We will always leave our door wide open to any US citizen who would like to visit our country out of goodwill and to see the realities with their own eyes.”

The impetus for this new travel ban was likely the death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, who was released from North Korean custody in a brain-dead state, before succumbing to his condition days later.  Warmbier, a student visiting North Korea via a Chinese tourism company, was accused of stealing a political poster from the hallway of the hotel he stayed in during his trip to North Korea.

The sentence for that crime? Fifteen years of hard labor in a prison camp, and it would seem, physical abuse that may have led directly to his death.  Despite claiming Warmbier died as a result of an untreated botulism infection, North Korea added to their complaints about the recent travel ban announcement with claims that they have delivered “just punishment” to U.S. citizens that have carried out acts against their regime.

“There is no country in the world that would let foreigners who commit this sort of crime be,” the spokesman said. “Ruling criminals by the law is exercising our confident right as a sovereign state.”

U.S. officials, unsurprisingly, don’t seem to agree with the official North Korean assessment of Warmbier’s case.  John McCain, a Republican U.S. senator and former prisoner of war, saw it as a cut and dry case of cold-blooded murder.

“Let us state the facts plainly: Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime,” he said.

President Trump also took North Korea to task in the media, not just for violating the law, but for failing to live up to the standards of human decency.

Otto’s fate deepens my administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

What may be a surprise, however, is that many Americans have indeed been among the estimated four to five thousand Westerners that visit North Korea each year.  This has actually been an increase since Kim Jong-un came into power, despite punishments for small crimes becoming increasingly harsh for tourists under the new leader.

The ones arrested more recently, since Kim Jong-un came to power, seem to be held for a longer period of time,” said Robert R. King, a former State Department special envoy for North Korea human rights issues. “When Kim Jong-un’s father was leader the length of time tended to be shorter.”

With tensions increasing between the United States and North Korea due to Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of a capable intercontinental missile platform and issuing threats of nuclear strikes on the American mainland, as well as the growing threat of imprisonment and even death, it seems downright confounding that any American would still choose to set foot in the nation of North Korea.

So why would North Korea want to issue a statement “welcoming” American tourists, despite imprisoning no fewer than 16 Americans over the last ten years?  The answer is simple really: hostages make for great bargaining chips.  North Korea recognizes the value in holding U.S. citizens, because they can negotiate for their release.  Because of the nation’s weak economy, their only real leverage at the bargaining table are threats of nuclear strikes, and releasing foreign citizens held in their prison camps.  Of course they would buck against such a travel ban, it will remove an entire portion of their foreign policy strategy.

That concept would also explain statements issued by the North Korean government that would seem to counter their claims that they welcome law-abiding Americans; claims like last year’s statement that “The Republic will handle all matters arising between us and the United States from now on under our wartime laws, and the matters of Americans detained are no exception to this.”

Travel bans are not something the United States tends to take lightly, as demonstrated by the decision to enact this ban only coming now, despite years of tense relations between the U.S. and North Korea, but it seems like a logical step to remove an asset Kim Jong-un may attempt to use in future negotiations with the United States.  Like economic sanctions, removing North Korea’s flow of potential hostages hinders their ability to pursue their overall goals.

Whether or not this ban will actually manage to weaken Kim’s hand overall is yet to be seen, but one thing is for certain, it will at least prevent more Americans from falling prey to their own foolishness, by way of North Korean imprisonment.


Image courtesy of U.S. House of Representatives Press release