The Magazine

Don’t Go There

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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That the North Korean regime has taken another American tourist hostage—this time it’s one Jeffrey Edward Fowle of Miamisburg, Ohio, who was seized in May after a Bible was reportedly discovered in his hotel room—is hardly surprising. North Korea is ferociously repressive, and, as Paul Marshall notes elsewhere in this issue, it targets Christians. What is odd is that the United States continues to allow Americans to travel to North Korea without any restrictions.

Look, poverty!

North Korea routinely kidnaps foreigners and holds them for ransom; Fowle is in fact one of three Americans held there now, the other two being tourist Matthew Todd Miller, age 24, seized in April, apparently as he entered the country, and Kenneth Bae of Washington state, accused of subversive proselytizing and now serving a 15-year sentence. In the past five years alone, at least nine Americans have been imprisoned by the Stalinist state. Six, happily, have been released. But freeing them came at great cost to the United States. 

Americans rightly object to their fellow countrymen being held captive in foreign lands and support strong actions to bring them home. But doing so can have unseemly consequences. In 2009, for example, in what was a major propaganda coup for then-Dear Leader Kim Jong-il (he’s now the dearly departed leader), former president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to rescue two American television journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years’ hard labor. In 2010, it took a plea from another former president, Jimmy Carter, and a visit from a U.S. special envoy to secure the release of a tourist who had been detained for “proselytizing.” These gestures by important Americans greatly enhanced the prestige of North Korea. One can only conjecture (and shudder to think) how much money we handed over to the Kim regime to secure the release of our citizens. 

Luckily, there’s an elegant solution to this conundrum: The United States should ban travel to North Korea by American citizens. It’s a policy that would make both strategic and moral sense. 

The North Korean regime is desperate for cash. That is a good thing. The interests of the rulers are in direct conflict with the interests of their oppressed people—and the interests of the wider world. Money that dictator Kim Jong-un doesn’t have is money that can’t be used to run his network of labor camps or advance his nuclear weapons program. 

Pyongyang’s precarious financial position is not solely a result of decades of grotesque economic mismanagement; it’s also a result of American and U.N. sanctions on the regime, which have greatly hampered its ability to raise cash, particularly foreign currency. Indeed, the whole point of the sanctions is to starve the regime of funding through policies like banking sanctions, bans on cash transfers, and bans on the export of luxury goods to the country. 

Tourism stands out as a glaring exception; without a travel ban, the sanctions are porous, even incoherent. The thousands of tourists who visit each year pay thousands of dollars to the Kim regime for the “privilege.” In so doing, they prop up an evil despotism that threatens the United States and allies like South Korea and Japan. Not only that, they obviously put themselves at great risk; the opportunity to kidnap Americans is too tempting to resist. As the Bowe Bergdahl brouhaha reminds us, our enemies are keenly aware that we’re willing to overpay to get our citizens back. 

Some may point to the ban on travel to Cuba, in effect since 1962, as an example of such a policy “failing”—after all, the Castro regime endures. But the analogy is imperfect, erroneous even, because the ban on travel to Cuba is so weak. There are numerous ways into Cuba through Canada and Mexico, and millions of Americans have visited with no consequences. This wouldn’t be the case with North Korea, with only a few flights a week from Beijing to Pyongyang. Moreover, the United States regularly allows tour groups to visit Cuba on “cultural exchanges,” undermining the ban. And Cuban émigrés are allowed to visit every three years, as more than half a million do each year. Properly designed, a North Korea travel ban would have no such loopholes. 

Of course, rather than a travel ban, the government could adopt a “Travel at Your Own Risk” policy, whereby the State Department would make it clear that it wouldn’t be bailing out any citizens foolhardy enough to get trapped in North Korea. But it’s doubtful that such a policy would last: If and when an American were taken hostage, it’s hard to imagine the State Department simply consigning him to his fate.

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