North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon dashed any hopes United States policymakers had for renewed talks when he said on June 23, “We are not considering even the possibility of any contact with the US… which would get us nowhere, only taking up precious time.”
Indeed, contact between the US and North Korea has diminished considerably after the Trump administration imposed a geographical travel restriction on North Korea for US passport holders. While up to one thousand Americans used to visit North Korea every year, that number became practically none after 2017, save for limited numbers of journalists and humanitarian workers who qualify for special validation passports.
LIFT (Let Individuals Freely Travel)—a joint initiative of the Korea Peace Network, Korea Peace Now! Grassroots Network, and Peace Treaty Now—hosted a discussion on June 23 titled, “LIFT for Peace: End the Travel Ban to North Korea.” The event featured a statement from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, representing Illinois’s 9th congressional district, and three panelists who have over four decades of collective experience working in North Korea: Choon Lim, a separated family member, Joy Yoon, a humanitarian worker, and Kee Park, a doctor.
Despite their different backgrounds and vocations, they presented a unified message: “Please lift the ban.”
Congresswoman Schakowsky—an original co-sponsor of House Resolution 152, which called for a formal end to the Korean War—opened the appeal by noting that “one of the most heartbreaking aspects and costs of the unresolved Korean War is the separation of families. It’s estimated there may be ten million people who are separated from their families, and the oldest of the generations is 80 and beyond. Many of them have lost family who have died during this period.”
An estimated one hundred thousand of that ten million live in the US, according to Lim, a member of the National Committee for North Korea. Lim himself was forced from his hometown of Nampo at age six when it was bombed by US forces during the Korean War.
“Allow these separated families to have closure and be given the opportunity to go home,” Lim pleaded. “There is a truly short time left for them.”
The only way for Korean Americans to visit their family members in North Korea is if the travel ban is lifted. However, one may question why the burden must fall on the US to allow free travel to North Korea rather than the other way around. Obviously, North Korea will not allow its citizens to leave the country for fear of defection, but therein lies the bigger problem. There would be no need for a travel ban in the first place if North Korea was a law-abiding, human-rights-respecting, responsible member of the international community.
The main reason for implementing the travel ban was due to concerns over the safety of US citizens. In particular, the death of Otto Warmbier—a 22-year-old college student accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a North Korean hotel—played an instrumental part in the decision to implement the ban.
“There is no doubt that the situation with Otto Warmbier was a tragedy,” said Yoon, who co-founded IGNIS Community, an organization that provides treatment for children with developmental disabilities in North Korea. “But the fact is that it was more of a tragedy because it was completely preventable.”
However, many question whether Warmbier’s arrest, like others before him, was not entwined with political motivations. “Despite official claims that US citizens arrested in the DPRK are not used for political purposes, it’s increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases that the DPRK does exactly that,” said US State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
Lee Min-yong, the chief advisor of the Sookmyung Research Institute of Global Governance in South Korea, referred to North Korea’s actions as a form of “hostage diplomacy.”
The panelists, however, emphasized that following the rules should keep you safe. Park explained, “We’ve analyzed that… 20 US citizens were actually detained in North Korea. Of the 20, actually eight entered into North Korea illegally. They violated the borders. The other eight were charged with… breaking the law. If you go to Yemen and you start evangelizing, they’ll probably arrest you.”
Indeed, a Korean-American missionary, Kenneth Bae, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2012 for “attempt[ing] to overthrow North Korea.” The problem is not simply following the rules. The problem is that the kind of authoritarian rules that govern North Korea are fundamentally incompatible with human flourishing.
The regime has a history of gross crimes against humanity. The COVID-19 pandemic has also worsened the humanitarian situation in North Korea, and the US Department of Agriculture’s International Food Security Assessment, 2020-30 estimated that nearly 60 percent of North Koreans are food insecure.
Yoon, however, pointed to the dire situation as a reason to lift the ban.
“It takes years to navigate and request all the necessary governmental permits and licenses, which includes not only special validation passports and UN exemptions, but also US treasury and commerce licenses,” she said. “As a humanitarian organization working on the ground in North Korea, this significantly delays life-saving aid and treatment.”
Park blamed the situation on political decisions and stressed the need for accountability: “According to our estimates, up to 4,000 people could have died as a result of the sanctions, delays, and funding cuts… You [countries imposing the sanctions] said these are not designed to harm ordinary people of North Korea or hinder humanitarian work but it is. What are you going to do about it?”
While the need for humanitarian relief in North Korea is strong, it is important to recognize that the main perpetrator and perpetuator of this crisis is the regime itself.
North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 216 out of 228 countries by GDP per capita. It also has the world’s fourth-largest standing army. Aid is often redirected away from the intended recipients. The money North Korea earns from foreign tourists goes into feeding its missile program, not its starving citizens.
Moreover, some groups have seen their efforts co-opted by the regime. Presbyterian minister Moses Lee notes in Providence that an evangelical-led university may have been used to train students to conduct “cyber-terrorism” or contribute to the rapid improvement in North Korea’s nuclear program. Lee cautions evangelicals that well-meaning efforts now that inadvertently support the regime could draw parallels in the minds of a future free North Korean population “between North Korea’s corrupt elite who partnered with evangelical educators and the former Imperial Japan with its Korean collaborators.”
Even for individual humanitarian organizations that are doing good work on the ground, their work will always be a response, not a resolution for the main problem: North Korea’s human rights-abusing dictatorship.
The North Korea travel ban is an unfortunate policy that has caused separated families much pain and has prevented humanitarian organizations from operating at their full capacities. However, if we want separated families to be reunited for good—not just for Korean Americans, but for South Koreans and others as well—and for the humanitarian crisis in North Korea to end, we must set our policies to resolve the main problem, not just the symptoms.