Earlier this week, the State Department announced that it will publish a Federal Register notice in the next 30 days, restricting the use of U.S. passports for travel to North Korea, where Americans tend to end up getting arrested, detained for prolonged periods, and lately, much worse. If State will implement the ban through a Federal Register notice, it means it will be done pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act under some existing statutory authority — almost certainly this one:
§211a. Authority to grant, issue, and verify passports
The Secretary of State may grant and issue passports, and cause passports to be granted, issued, and verified in foreign countries by diplomatic and consular officers of the United States, and by such other employees of the Department of State who are citizens of the United States as the Secretary of State may designate, and by the chief or other executive officer of the insular possessions of the United States, under such rules as the President shall designate and prescribe for and on behalf of the United States, and no other person shall grant, issue, or verify such passports. Unless authorized by law, a passport may not be designated as restricted for travel to or for use in any country other than a country with which the United States is at war, where armed hostilities are in progress, or where there is imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety of United States travellers.
My favorite reaction was Bruce Klingner’s:
Americans cherish our God-given right to do stupid things, but sometimes it’s necessary to do a travel ban. https://t.co/yj6rVwKMJn
— Bruce Klingner (@BruceKlingner) July 22, 2017
It would be a simple matter to let Americans exercise that right as they saw fit if the U.S. government — and the taxpayers who elect it, fund it, and expect it to make foreign policy to protect them — were willing to forfeit their reckless countrymen to Pyongyang’s jails, or to Darwin’s cull. It is our virtue (or to some, our weakness) that we hold the lives of our fellow citizens too dear for this. Thus, Pyongyang’s hostage-taking makes too much work for our diplomats, pilots, presidents, and ex-presidents. And it implicitly restrains our policy decisions to know that Pyongyang may harm our citizens to punish or intimidate the rest of us.
That is to say, the cost of these detentions isn’t just paid by the person who takes a foolish risk and gets himself arrested. The cost is paid by every U.S. taxpayer, and by every American, South Korean (and lest we forget, North Korean) with an interest in having the U.S. government execute a coherent policy, unencumbered by Pyongyang’s hostage diplomacy. And if that policy is “maximum pressure,” a passport restriction isn’t that by a mile.
For one thing, the passport restriction will reportedly allow for “special validations” for humanitarian and journalistic travel, even if we should hope those validations will be granted judiciously. After all, Pyongyang has also taken American aid workers and journalists hostage. And even if you could argue that all of these arrestees did stupid things to get themselves arrested, none of those stupid things justified lengthy detentions (much less what Pyongyang did to Otto Warmbier).
A passport restriction will deter the sort of casual, morally frivolous traveler who goes to North Korea knowing too little about the place, but it will be easy to evade for those with deeper (as in, political or financial) motives. Dual nationals can simply use a third-country passport. Don’t expect the North Koreans to obligingly stamp the passports of paying customers or prospective hostages just for the convenience of the U.S. Department of State.
Crap, and I bought the non-refundable tour packagehttps://t.co/RtKhJQ6vao
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) July 25, 2017
Nor is this action likely to have more than a minimal effect on Pyongyang’s accumulation of its preferred currency, the dollar. A passport restriction won’t impact Pyongyang’s income from Chinese, Canadian, and European tourists who pay dollars for their tours, flights, and hotels. It also won’t close the legal loophole in the Treasury Department’s designation of Air Koryo, which has a long history of smuggling missile parts and luxury goods. You can accuse the U.S. government of many things, but never of well-synchronized inter-agency policy (which is why my first reaction to most conspiracy theories is laughter).
To do these things would require a ban on transactions incident to travel to, from, and within North Korea. That, however, would have required special legislation like the North Korea Travel Control Act, or the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which was the legal vehicle for the Cuba travel ban. Whenever Congress is ready for that, I could do them one better by slapping a secondary immigration sanction on North Korea, one that would make any recent non-U.S.-citizen travelers to North Korea ineligible for admission into the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
Still, the restriction will have some value. To the extent that Americans go to such lengths to visit North Korea and get themselves arrested, it will at least be easier for us all to shrug and say, “You can’t fix stupid,” and get on with implementing our policy. Speaking of things you can’t fix, the organizers of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, who have sacrificed two hostages to His Porcine Majesty (so far!), are already clamoring for an exception to the passport restrictions.
The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, whose faculty includes 60 to 80 foreigners throughout the academic year — half of whom are Americans — would likely have to suspend operations if it did not receive an exemption from the forthcoming restriction, according to Colin McCulloch, the institution’s director of external relations.
“If we didn’t get an exception, we would basically have to stop our work,” McCulloch, who has taught business, economics and English at the school since it first opened to North Korean students in 2010, told ABC News. “That’s how serious it would be. Because we would not be able to provide enough personnel.” [ABC News]
The State Department’s answer to this should be immediate and emphatic: “Good!” Every PUST faculty member is the next potential hostage. All of them should come home immediately.
Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name, Kim Sang-duk, taught accounting at the university before he was detained at an airport in April and charged with unspecified hostile criminal acts, and Kim Hak-song was held in May after spending several weeks doing “agricultural development work with PUST’s experimental farm,” the university said at the time. He was also charged with unspecified “hostile acts.”
There are also long-standing concerns, supported by recent defectors, that PUST’s computer science instruction is helping to train Pyongyang’s hackers. PUST denies this without explaining how it could possibly know better.
Wesley Brewer, an American who has taught computer science at PUST since 2010 and now serves as the institution’s vice president of research, said that the arrests shook the university community and affected him deeply. He told ABC News now looked like a good time for him to take a long-planned sabbatical.
“Being an American there, you feel like you’re standing right in between the two countries and maybe preventing some kind of moving forward, in terms of diplomatically,” Brewer said.
Brewer splits his time between Seoul and Pyongyang and spoke from Jackson, Mississippi, where he was visiting a church that supports his work. “I just felt like with the heightened tensions, it seemed it would be wiser to step back and let things settle down before re-engaging,” he said.
Finally, paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2321, approved last November, requires all member states to suspend scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea pending a full review for potential proliferation concerns. The U.S. government should not only withdraw its people, licenses, and permits from PUST, it should encourage other member states to do likewise. We can’t ask other governments to implement sanctions we aren’t implementing fully ourselves.
Naturally, self-interested tour guides who profit from leading lambs to the slaughter and worshippers to the altars of despots complain that State is cutting off avenues for engagement. But this is the sort of people-to-minder engagement that has never changed North Korea for the better, and arguably reinforces what is worst about it: its Manichean, supremacist xenophobia.
Many of the most egregious apologists make a point of mocking the excesses of the North’s official culture. I have encountered two so far — one in print, one in the flesh — who have talked of the uncontrollable laughing fit they suffered while touring a site sacred to the personality cult. They seem to think this proves that their critical faculty is as developed as anyone else’s.
It does not. On the contrary: To be an apologist for North Korea, you have to treat its ideology as a bit of a joke. If you take the personality cult seriously, you cannot fail to see the impossibility of the North’s ever reconciling itself to a South that ignores it. And if you take the bellicose, racist and sexist propaganda seriously, you cannot at the same time reassure yourself that this is a communist or “reactive” or “survivalist” state; or that it is arming out of mere fear of the US; or that it will behave if we only appease it enough.
Least of all can you take its ideology seriously and still believe that by traveling to the country, you are helping to subvert the locals’ worldview. To grasp the official culture is to understand how perfectly the humble, wreath-laying foreigner fits into it.
All agencies operating tours in North Korea preach an extremely apologetic line in regard to the country, both on their websites and during the tours themselves. Whether they really believe it or only pretend to do so is beside the point. [Brian Myers]
A passport restriction is, if nothing else, a welcome acknowledgment that our experiments in people-to-minder engagement have failed. It will reduce the pool of hostages available to Pyongyang and put a small crimp in its supply of dollars. Perhaps, by taking the first and most controversial step of banning American tourist travel to North Korea, the State Department has also cleared Congress’s way to pass a travel transaction ban, which would have a far broader impact on Pyongyang’s finances.