Last Friday, former Cuban President Fidel Castro passed away. Cuban-Americans celebrated in Miami and President-elect Trump threatened to reimpose economic sanctions on the island nation.
Brought on by Cold War hostility, America maintained strict limits on trade with the communist republic until President Obama took steps to ease these measures in 2014 after secret talks in Canada.
At the time, conservatives and some liberals responded harshly to the change in U.S. policy. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the shift would have “devastating effects” and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey called it an “extremely dangerous precedent.”
Although Americans visiting Cuba has been difficult and a political issue for the last 50 years, there is another repressive communist country in the world which Americans can freely visit.
Since 1977, it has been legal to visit North Korea.
North Korea (CIA Factbook):
– Borders China, South Korea and Russia
– Has no independent media, the government owns all four television stations in the nation
– Has used its diplomats to smuggle drugs. Two diplomatic employees were arrested in 2004 for doing so in Turkey
– Ruled by the Kim family (Il-Sung, Jong-Il and Jong-Un [Current] since the 1950’s)
How Did That Happen
After defeating Gerald Ford for the presidency in 1976, then President Jimmy Carter spoke at the U.N. General Assembly and announced his intent to reach out to nations hostile to America.
As part of this policy, the State Department lifted some restrictions on traveling to Vietnam, North Korea, and Cambodia in the first year of the Carter Administration.
Back then, American passports were issued with annotations saying they were not valid for any travel to these countries.
By directing his Secretary of State to publish annotation free passports, former President Carter legalized travel to these places, though firm restrictions on spending money remained in place.
Where Are We Now
Shortly after University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was detained in North Korea in January, The Associated Press reported that U.S. officials were seriously considering a modern day ban on travel to the North. Despite the consideration, nothing was done.
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu said that this is the right course of action to take.
“I think we stand by our principles. As one running an American human rights organization I must stand by those principles,” Scarlatoiu said. “We should not sacrifice any of our freedoms including our freedom to travel to any place.”
Instead of banning travel, the State Department currently issues warnings to U.S. citizens when a foreign country is affected by forms of instability such as war, protests or natural disasters.
Fellow activist and employee of North Korean aid organization Liberty in North Korea Sarah Palmer said that visiting the North is fine and that it may be more beneficial than critics would think.
“I think travel to North Korea can be seen as controversial, but it can be a good thing. I’ve known a few people who have traveled there with different tour companies and they have had really interesting and insightful experiences,” Palmer said.
Americans Seized in North Korea:
As a means of gaining diplomatic concessions from the United States, the North has on occasion detained Americans for varying charges in the last few years. Aside from Warmbier, American Kim Dong-Chul is currently held on espionage charges by North Korean law enforcement. Previously detained Americans include Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Miller and reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
* Data via Wikipedia
In recent years, some journalists and experts have questioned whether a ban on all travel to North Korea would be effective.
In April, Hamish MacDonald of U.S based North Korean news website NKNews.org reported that North Korean authorities don’t stamp the passports of those who visit the country, making it challenging to punish those who would visit after a legal ban.
Jae Ku, a former member of the Washington, D.C., based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said that a ban is not likely to happen as long as the Korean-American community remains inactive politically regarding the North.
“There is a very significant and influential Cuban-American lobby that advances the cause of not doing business with Cuba,” Ku said. “You don’t find that on North Korea.”
Korean-American and 23-year-old University of San Diego engineering student Michael Ha said that a tough approach would be best and dismissed the idea of any benefits to tourist visits.
“I think people who go there have blood on their hands. To enable a regime like that is pathetic and shameful. I wish I could stop it, but I am just one person and too young to do anything,” Ha said.
Will Congress Take Action?
Asked about the legality of visiting North Korea and Cuba on Wednesday, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said he did not know why Americans could visit one and not the other.
“I don’t really know, being a new senator it’s not really a subject I’ve spent a lot of time studying. Frankly, I don’t know why anybody in their right mind would go to North Korea and the other one [Opening travel to Cuba] I think we’re working through right now,” Tillis said.
According to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, general tourism is still prohibited. In order to visit the tropical nation, you need to be traveling for purposes related to one or more of twelve categories such as visiting family, journalism or religious activity.
To go to North Korea, you only need a plane ticket.