WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will allow American journalists, Red Cross employees and other humanitarian workers to apply for exemptions to a ban on travel to North Korea that is set to take effect in early September.
In documents posted online Tuesday, the State Department said that in addition to journalists and aid workers, Americans whose travel to North Korea “is otherwise in the national interest” will be considered for exemptions. The new regulations are to be published on Wednesday in the Federal Register, which posted the preview documents on its website. The travel ban will take effect on Sept. 1, 30 days after publication.
The exemptions are contained in documents that will accompany a formal announcement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s determination to ban U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea. The State Department announced last month that Tillerson had decided to impose a “geographical travel restriction” on the use of U.S. passports to visit North Korea following the death in June of American university student Otto Warmbier, who fell into a coma while in North Korean custody.
“The Department of State has determined that the serious risk to United States nationals of arrest and long-term detention represents imminent danger to the physical safety of United States nationals traveling to and within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” says the Federal Register notice signed by Tillerson. “Therefore … all United States passports are declared invalid for travel to, in or through the DPRK unless specially validated for such travel.”
Violating the ban, which is authorized under the Passport Act of 1972 and will be in effect for one year unless revoked earlier, is a felony and punishable by a fine and up to 10 years in prison for a first offense.
Publication of the exemption rules opens a 21-day period for the public to offer comments, although the administration is expected to go ahead with them regardless of opposition.
Under the proposal, American professional journalists, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and American Red Cross, as well as Americans whose travel “is justified by compelling humanitarian considerations” or is “otherwise in the national interest” may apply for a special validation to use their U.S. passport to visit North Korea. The validation would apply to one round trip to the country.
The department said it estimates that about 100 Americans per year would apply for the exemption. Applicants would have to submit standard personal identification information along with a statement explaining why they meet the exemption criteria supported by documentary evidence, according to the Federal Register notice.
The State Department announced on July 21 that Tillerson had decided to go ahead with the ban amid the fallout over Warmbier’s death as well as heightened U.S. concern about Pyongyang’s recent advancements in its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
The U.S. already strongly warns Americans against traveling to North Korea but has not until now prohibited trips, despite other sanctions targeting the country. Americans who venture there typically travel from China, where several tour groups market trips to adventure-seekers.
Figures on how many Americans visit North Korea are difficult for even the U.S. government to obtain, but organizers of guided tours to the country estimate between 800 and 1,000 visit annually.
Nearly all Americans who have gone to North Korea have left without incident. But some have been seized and given draconian sentences for seemingly minor offenses. Over the past decade, at least 16 U.S. citizens have been detained, including Warmbier. He died in June after being medically evacuated in a coma from North Korea.
Warmbier suffered a severe neurological injury from an unknown cause while in custody. Relatives said they were told the 22-year-old University of Virginia student had been in a coma since shortly after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea in March 2016. He had been accused of stealing a propaganda poster while on a tour of the country.
Under U.S. law, the secretary of state has the authority to designate passports as restricted for travel to countries with which the United States is at war, when armed hostilities are in progress, or when there is imminent danger to the public health or physical security of U.S. travelers.
Since 1967, such bans have been imposed intermittently on countries including Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Cuba and North Vietnam. Financial restrictions limit U.S. travel to Cuba and elsewhere, but when the regulations go into effect on Sept. 1, North Korea will be the only country where U.S. prohibits its passports for travel.