Yesterday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D, Cal.) and Joe Wilson (R, S.C.) introduced a bill that would ban transactions incident to travel to, from, and within North Korea. The text isn’t posted on Congress.gov yet, but Schiff and Wilson have issued identical press releases describing what the bill would do:
Today, Congressmen Adam Schiff (CA-28) and Joe Wilson (SC-02) introduced the bipartisan North Korea Travel Control Act, which would require the Treasury Department to issue regulations requiring a license for transactions related to travel to, from, and within North Korea by American citizens. It also provides that no licenses may be issued for tourist travel.
“Tourist travel to North Korea does nothing but provide funds to a tyrannical regime—that will in turn be used to develop weapons to threaten the United States and our allies, as I saw firsthand on a rare visit to Pyongyang,” Rep. Wilson said. “Worse, the regime has routinely imprisoned innocent foreign civilians and used them as bargaining chips to gain credibility with the West. We should not enable them any longer—which is why it is critical to carefully regulate travel to North Korea.”
“In recent years, there has been an increase in tourist travel to the DPRK by citizens of Western countries, including the United States,” Rep. Schiff said. “With increased tensions in North Korea, the danger that Americans will be detained for political reasons is greater than ever. Given North Korea’s continuing destabilizing behavior and their demonstrated willingness to use American visitors as bargaining chips to extract high level meetings or concessions, it is appropriate for the United States to take steps to control travel to a nation that poses a real and present danger to American interests.”
In the past, North Korea has shown a willingness to use American prisoners to seek diplomatic concessions, including securing visits from former U.S. Presidents and cabinet officials. At least seventeen Americans have been detained in the past ten years, despite the State Department strongly warning U.S. citizens against traveling to the DPRK. Currently, at least four Americans remain imprisoned. In addition to security concerns, Western visitors bring with them much needed foreign currency, especially valued in a country facing extensive international sanctions for its illegal nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
It’s hard to offer too many thoughts on a bill whose text I haven’t seen, but conceptually, I agree with all of this. It’s past time to give the President authority to ban (or ban outright) tourist travel to North Korea, the proceeds of which are used for God-only-knows what (although I’m pretty sure it isn’t baby formula). If President Trump’s policy really is going to be “maximum pressure” — and I’ve seen precious few signs of that pressure so far — then this will deny His Porcine Majesty one more source of hard currency. Among other things, it will make the designation of Air Koryo far more effective than it could otherwise be, and will put sharper teeth into Executive Order 13722’s sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation industry.
As I previously explained here, the President can’t sanction travel-related sanctions without special legislation like this, because of the carve-out in section 203(b)(4) of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Keep in mind that this ban will not only affect travel by Americans, but any travel-related transactions denominated in dollars, regardless of the nationality of the traveler or the tour company. Much of the news coverage of this bill I’ve seen, which includes the self-interested comments of tour operators, misses that point.
As you know, I have mixed feelings about those who go slumming to North Korea and do stupid things there (starting with the decision to go there at all). I’m all for letting individuals (including stupid ones) make their own decisions, up to the point when their decisions begin to harm other people. My feelings aren’t at all mixed about the unethical tour companies that lie to their customers, tell them that North Korea is a perfectly safe place to visit, and remain willfully blind to the oppression and war that their dollars are really paying for. I wish them a speedy journey to bankruptcy court.
This may be the only sanctions bill for which the State Department might say a silent prayer of thanks. Each hostage taken frustrates our diplomats, sets back efforts to carry out a more coherent policy, and ultimately raises the danger to the rest of us who are smart enough to stay out of North Korea. No, a travel ban won’t stop every imbecile from going to North Korea, but it will reduce the supply. Whoever still believes that underwriting Kim Jong-un’s regime with dollars is plausibly leading to a kinder, gentler North Korea is stuck on that belief for emotional reasons, far beyond the reach of the overwhelming evidence that it is doing precisely the opposite of this. By financing North Korea’s horrific status quo, tourism does the North Korea people more harm than good. By undermining the financial pressure on Pyongyang, tourism helps Kim Jong-un resist pressure to disarm, to change, and to make North Korea a decent place for its people to live.
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Update: It now occurs to me that if this bill passes, you can forget about reopening Kumgang, at least as a dollar operation.