The recent return of American college student Otto Warmbier to the U.S. in a vegetative state at the hands of North Korea, and his subsequent death, have raised questions once again about U.S. tourist travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Warmbier did not face a fair or open trial, and many argue that the DPRK—rather than actually looking to counter alleged ‘acts of espionage’—uses Americans (and other foreign nationals) as bargaining chips for their diplomatic negotiations. A strong case could therefore be made for preventing the flow of U.S. nationals into the country all together. U.S. Foreign Secretary Rex Tillerson has suggested that such travel should be banned. However, this would need to be passed through Congress. Currently, the only country from which Americans are banned from traveling to (for the expressed purpose of tourism) is Cuba. In the last decade, “at least” 16 U.S. citizens have been held in North Korea and only one has been held in Cuba.
While the U.S. already implores its citizens to not travel to North Korea, they have not imposed a tourist travel ban à la Cuba. It would appear (legally) easier to travel to North Korea on a tourist visa than it is to Cuba, an island some 100 miles away from Florida.
Young Pioneer Tours, the group which managed Warmbier’s trip, still states on its website that “North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit provided you follow the laws as provided by our documentation and pre-tour briefings.” The reality is far more complex. Many of the laws are not published and it is not clear which actions could be constituted as breaching those laws. Many of the foreign nationals arrested in the DPRK were never fully able to clarify what the alleged charges against them were. Tourist travel to North Korea is simple enough; U.S. citizens must arrange for a tour and enter the country via China, where they acquire their tourist visa.
In recent years, American tourist travel to Cuba has been all but legalized. In fact, 614,000 Americans, the majority of whom are believed to have been tourists, made the trip to the island last year. Cuban immigration services—at both the point of arrival and of departure—typically do not ask about an American resident’s reason for travel. Rather, the enforcement happens on the American side by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Returning residents are required to self-declare their reason for travel from a list of 12 categories. Options include “Educational Activities” and the vague “Support for the Cuban People.” Not a single American has been prosecuted for travelling to Cuba outside of these categories since they were updated in 2015, and typically no means of verification is required for a self-declared category anyway.
Once in Cuba, it is possible to conduct activities freely in an almost unmonitored fashion. Obviously, some restrictions exist. Documentation must be provided and recorded in hotels and casa particular (private home stay), U.S. bank and SIM cards do not function, and all tourists are required to use a currency separate from the Cuban population. However, this is a far-cry from the amount of monitoring and lack of free movement allowed in the DPRK, where approximately 1,000 Americans traveled to last year. Hotels must be organized through a tour group, travelers must be with a guide at all times, and interaction with regular DPRK citizens is prohibited.
The effect of tourist travel in Cuba is transformative for its economy. More workers than ever operate jobs that cater to tourists. The Cuban government, to allow for this activity, has legalized small and medium-sized businesses. From the perspective of the U.S. government, this would appear to be a win-win situation—Americans gain access to a nearby foreign destination and, in the process, Cuba rapidly transitions into a capitalist society, ready for eventual formal trade relations with the U.S. Yet the process was also controversial. Former U.S. President Barack Obama had to negotiate the rapprochement in secrecy from much of the State Department and Congress, which may have resisted the effort. This process of secrecy has proven to be a wise move on Obama’s part; many Republicans, including now Trump, have promised to roll back some of these developments after they were revealed.
This leaves us with a perplexing conflict of logic. If Cuba is not developing a nuclear weapons program and if communism is no longer considered a “dangerous” ideological threat to the U.S., what precisely justifies the travel restrictions to Cuba over those of the DPRK? The U.S. Code on Passports states that “[u]nless authorized by law, a passport may not be designated as restricted for travel to or for use in any country other than a country with which the United States is at war, where armed hostilities are in progress, or where there is imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety of United States travelers.” The latter part of the clause, as of yet, has not been applied to the DPRK.
If the U.S. want to take a tougher stance on the DPRK, restricting its flow of American tourists would abolish the dictatorship’s ability to use them for bargaining and compromise. Equally, if the U.S. wants to pursue covert diplomatic channels, it would do well to avoid the public outcry that the death of Warmbier has triggered domestically against the DPRK. With this all said, there have been more concrete moves to restrict American travel to Cuba over the DPRK, which draws the priorities of U.S. foreign policy into question. If the Trump administration decides to increase travel restrictions to Cuba instead of to the DPRK, the U.S.’s moderation of where its citizens can travel to (and its right and reasoning to mediate such matters in the first place) could become a topic of fierce contention.
Marco Iovino is an Executive Office Intern at the EastWest Institute in New York. He is currently in the middle of completing his bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in California but he calls London his home and tries to go back often. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.