A Dumb Idea: North Korea and the Travel Ban


North Korea cynically used to camouflage the Muslim ban

Stephan Haggard (PIIE), Marcus Noland (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)



This blog has long documented the leaky nature of the sanctions regime and how those leaks have contributed to the status quo around the peninsula. But it has also been committed to the proposition that the ultimate objective of any policy should be to effect change in North Korea itself. One way of doing this is a mantra that Marc Noland and Steph Haggard have developed, namely “to get people in and to get people out.” We supported the ban on tourism to North Korea because the industry had become just another foreign exchange generator, permitted only the most circumscribed and stage-managed contact with the society, and through the cynical abuse of American tourists—most tragically Otto Warmbier—created diplomatic leverage for North Korea.

But such reservations do not pertain to humanitarian contacts, nor to scholarly and other professional contact. And it certainly doesn’t pertain to trying to get North Koreans to see and understand the real world. Steph Haggard just returned from giving a talk at the University of British Columbia, where Kyung-ae Park has been bringing North Korean academics to Canada for seven years now; an explanation of her logic can be found here.

"The ultimate objective of any policy should be to effect change in North Korea itself." 

We were thus dispirited to read that the US has now banned most North Koreans from entry into the United States. North Korea was lumped together with parallel actions affecting two other countries not on the original travel ban list: Chad and Venezuela. Inclusion of North Korea is particularly cynical and short-sighted; nominally included for failure to cooperate with US screening protocols, it appears ultimately aimed at diluting the perception that the ban focused primarily on Muslim countries. To the administration’s credit, the new ban does not cover students or refugees. But as Peter Margulies points out at Lawfare, “since North Korea does not allow its nationals to emigrate to the U.S. (or anywhere else), the number of North Koreans affected by the new ban is virtually nil.”

The ban could nonetheless have a chilling effect on the perception of US openness to receive North Korean refugees. And more importantly, the ban blocks other types of contacts which both North Korea and we desperately need to find out what is going on in the country and for North Korea’s next generation to see the world. Sorry, but this is just a dumb idea. 

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