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U.S. State Department to ban American travel to North Korea

The 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, the highest building under construction in North Korea, is seen from inside another hotel's room in Pyongyang, North Korea May 7, 2016. (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo)
July 21, 2017

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – The U.S. government will ban Americans from traveling to North Korea due to “the serious risk of arrest” after an American student was jailed while on a tour and later died, the State Department said on Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson authorized a “Geographical Travel Restriction” on all Americans’ use of a passport to the country, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Once in effect, U.S. passports will be invalid for travel to, through and in North Korea, and individuals will be required to obtain a passport with a special validation in order to travel to or within North Korea,” Nauert said.

The move was due to “mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” she added.

North Korea has detained two Korean-American academics and a missionary, a Canadian pastor and three South Korean nationals who were doing missionary work there. Japan says at least several dozen of its nationals are being held in the country.

The State Department plans to publish a notice in the Federal Register next week, starting a 30-day clock before the restriction takes effect, Nauert said.

A guide wearing a traditional dress speaks to visitors at the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea May 4, 2016. (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo)

Nauert said Americans who want to travel to North Korea “for certain limited humanitarian or other purposes” can apply for a special passport to do so.

Young Pioneer, a company that arranges tours to North Korea, took American student Otto Warmbier to the country at the end of 2015.

He was arrested there and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for an incident at his hotel where he was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner.

North Korea released the 22-year-old Warmbier in June in a coma and he died days after getting back to the United States. The circumstances surrounding his death are not clear, including why he fell into a coma.

North Korea has said through its state media that Warmbier’s death was “a mystery” and dismissed accusations that he had died as a result of torture and beating in captivity.

The isolated North Korea allows foreign tourists to visit but their travel is strictly limited.

Hundreds of Americans are among the roughly 4,000 to 5,000 Western tourists who visit North Korea each year, according to U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina.

Earlier this year Wilson introduced a bill with Democratic Representative Adam Schiff to ban Americans from traveling to North Korea as tourists.

Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former U.S. Treasury official, said the State Department’s action is important because it limits North Korea’s ability to use detained Americans as a bargaining chip with Washington.

A Treasury Department ban, which must be authorized by Congress, would be more effective than just the State Department ban, he said.

“Treasury has experience implementing a travel ban and an established procedure for issuing exceptions,” Ruggiero said.

A Treasury Department spokesman did not immediately say whether the agency is considering such a ban.

Tom Bodkin, managing director of the UK-based adventure travel company Secret Compass, said the travel ban is “a bit of a shame.”

“Travel between different cultures breaks down the preconceptions that you have about different cultures and breaks down the stereotypes that you have,” he said.

Secret Compass has brought three Americans among the 19 people it took to North Korea since launching tours there last fall, he said.

North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting U.S. President Donald Trump, who has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to strike the United States with a nuclear missile – a capability experts say Pyongyang could have some time after 2020.

(Additional reporting by James Pearson in SEOUL and Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Yeganeh Torbati and Jack Kim; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Jeffrey Benkoe)