All US tourists can now say goodbye to North Korea
Pyongyang,Sept1:North Korea has drawn a small but steady flow of US travelers since easing restrictions on American tourism in 2010.
But come September 1, 2017, US citizens will be barred from visiting the Hermit Kingdom — so called for its isolationist policies.
According to the US State Department, the ban has been instituted because of the “serious and mounting risk of arrest and long-term detention of US citizens …” and “imminent danger” posed by North Korea’s “arbitrary system of law enforcement.”
The policy follows the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for attempting to steal a propaganda banner. Of the 18 people detained since 1995, 16 have been Americans, including three US citizens still in North Korean custody.
Some tour operators have already stopped taking Americans, including Hong Kong-based Eastern Vision and China-based Young Pioneer Tours — the company that arranged Warmbier’s visit.
“Our decision (to stop taking American travelers on tours after Otto) was based on the escalated potential consequences for Americans who may be detained,” Troy Collings, managing director of Young Pioneer Tours’s North Korea operations, tells CNN.
“I don’t think Americans are in danger of arbitrary arrest, but the (detainment) statistics speak for themselves.”
A last-minute influx
Despite government warnings, many Americans have been compelled to see the country for themselves before the ban took effect.
One such traveler is Jeff Barnicki, who squeezed in a last-minute trip with Beijing-based Koryo Tours last week.
“As an American, I may never be able to go back, so just getting there once was better than not going at all,” Barnicki tells CNN. “North Korea is a mysterious country. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew about the place — and the more curious I became.”
The US will ban American citizens from visiting North Korea starting September 1. CNN’s Will Ripley talks to some of the last American tourists to visit before the ban begins.
He says the experience helped him understand why North Koreans vilify the US — at least, in political rhetoric.
“North Koreans grow up being constantly reminded that the US killed 33% of their population and leveled their entire country (during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953),” he says. “They believe that if they didn’t have missiles and nuclear bombs, the US would have invaded by now.”
While anti-American sentiments pervade political propaganda, Barnicki didn’t feel threatened or unsafe.
Instead, he found that the people he interacted with were generally warm and welcoming.
“One guide was actually embarrassed when he saw me flipping through some anti-American propaganda postcards,” Barnicki recalls. “He laughed and told me: ‘Please try and understand our politics.'”
Inside the Hermit Kingdom
The vast majority of travelers to North Korea are Chinese, accounting for more than 100,000 tourist arrivals per year. But among non-Chinese travelers, Americans are actually one of the larger groups.
According to Koryo Tours, which has been facilitating North Korea visits since 1993, roughly 20% of non-Chinese tourists are American.
The largest Western groups are from Britain, the rest of Europe and America, Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours tells CNN.
“I’d estimate 1,000 travelers a year come from the US.”
For some, visiting North Korea poses an ethical conflict because of the country’s history of human rights violations. The US State Department also questions tourism revenue, and how it’s spent.
“It is entirely possible that money spent by tourists in the DPRK goes to fund (weapons programs),” the government memo states. “We would urge all travelers, before traveling to the DPRK, to consider what they might be supporting.”
But for travelers such as Barnicki, the opportunity to interact with an isolated community outweighed these concerns.
“I honestly did not spend much money there — seriously, maybe $300 on souvenirs and beer — and it appeared that the money went to a local economy, which really needs it, not nukes and missiles,” he says.
“(After the ban), there will no longer be the brief human interaction that the North Koreans get with the American tourists. They will now only hear how bad we are from their media, and Americans will only hear how bad (North Koreans) are from our media. It is a losing proposition for both sides.”
A tour de force
For anyone except Americans and South Koreans — who are already prohibited from entering — it’s relatively easy to obtain a North Korean tourist visa, but all travelers must book a guided tour.