North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un may have been incensed last week at having been knocked out of the headlines by a gay NBA player, or perhaps he was just having a bad day. His solution? Send an American citizen to the gulag. Kenneth Bae, a Washington state native who owns a tour company that specializes in travel to North Korea, was arrested last November in North Korea and charged with unspecified “crimes against the state.” (His “crime” appears to have been photographing malnourished children.) Last week, North Korea’s inaptly named justice system found Bae guilty and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor.
This story may sound familiar. According to the State Department, “U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea . . . have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention. Since January 2009, four U.S. citizens have been arrested for entering North Korea illegally, and two U.S. citizens who entered on valid DPRK visas were arrested inside North Korea on other charges.”
The North Korean regime uses these kidnappings, er, arrests, as a means of extracting concessions and prestige-enhancing visits from American bigwigs. A few years ago, for example, Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea to secure the release of two American television reporters.
History now looks set to repeat itself. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who visits Stalinist North Korea so often that he probably has a vacation home there, released a statement immediately after Bae’s conviction, saying, “Now that the sentencing and the North Korean legal process has been completed it is important that negotiations begin to secure Kenneth Bae’s release on humanitarian grounds or a general amnesty.” (Translation: Richardson is itching to hop on the next flight to Pyongyang.)
It occurs to The Scrapbook that these events could be avoided if a ban on travel to North Korea were imposed. (Only some 4,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year, almost all on stage-managed propaganda tours.) Not only does tourism provide much-needed revenue to an evil regime teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse, but, as the Bae incident shows, it also gives the North Korean government plum opportunities to hold Americans hostage for ransom.
A travel ban would mitigate this danger. Bill Richardson need not worry, though; The Scrapbook would be happy to exempt him from the ban. Kim Jong-un can have him.