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Straight from DPRK: Traveling to NK: Brave or Crazy?

Doug Bandow

Pyongyang, North Korea — In the popular mind, there may be
no more forbidding destination on earth. I’ve never had as
many people ask if I was serious when I mentioned I was heading to
the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea last month.

In fact, I had no worries. I was going as a guest of the
Institute for American Studies of the Foreign Ministry. I also
understood what not to do.

Failing at the latter has proved to be the undoing of a number
of Americans, most spectacularly collegian Otto Warmbier, who died
after being released by North Korea in a coma. Three other
Americans remain in custody, along with several South Koreans and
other foreign nationals. But their plight, though tragic, is not a
good reason to ban travel to the DPRK.

Some in Congress want to
ban travel to the North. But a free society should protect the
liberty to travel and explore.

Some attributed Warmbier’s release to the Trump
administration’s efforts, though it had no more leverage than
its predecessor. While in the North I asked if the government sent
Warmbier home as a conciliatory gesture to Washington. The
unequivocal response was that it was strictly a humanitarian
matter.

Otto Warmbier’s family blamed the Obama administration for
failing to win his release, but the decision always was
Pyongyang’s. Why the DPRK released him was impossible to know
for sure: perhaps Kim Jong-un decided that holding a comatose
prisoner was a political liability.

The cases of Warmbier and other Americans, some going back
years, are uniformly awful: people punished for actions that should
not be considered criminal. But the DPRK is not alone in penalizing
foreigners for dubious offenses. The main difference may be that
Pyongyang, more than most other “hostile” states, sees
potential political value in jailed Americans.

Still, a thousand Americans visit annually and don’t get
arrested. Young Pioneer Tours, which organized the trip on which
Warmbier traveled, pointed out that it had brought in more than
8000 other travelers without incident.

On my plane entering North Korea I sat next to a British citizen
who was making his third tourist visit. The worst trouble he had
was being told to delete photos deemed inappropriate.

A number of humanitarian groups, some explicitly religious, work
in the officially atheist nation. I met several NGO staffers and
volunteers in the midst of a lengthy sojourn providing medical
care. None had ever ended up in jail.

In fact, arrests aren’t random but, in North Korea’s
view, for cause. DPRK officials say they punish intentional, not
accidental, rules violations.

I chatted with the head of a Western NGO active in the North who
said her group had looked into the cases of those jailed: all had
committed some illegal act. Obviously that doesn’t mean their
conduct warranted punishment. But they put themselves under the
DPRK’s authority, to ill effect.

Warmbier’s case looks extreme even by North Korean
standards. Some knowledgeable Westerners suggested that there was
more to his case, perhaps involving an insult to the North Korean
system and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The poster incident merely
became the cover story.

Some in Congress want to ban travel to the North. But a free
society should protect the liberty to travel and explore. This
right shouldn’t be limited without compelling
justification.

Visiting the DPRK has educational value. Those who spend time in
North Korea are more likely to understand it. Since the U.S.
government lacks a diplomatic presence; American visitors are the
best alternative.

Going to the North also causes those living in free societies to
better appreciate their systems. I left thankful that I lived in a
society which, however imperfectly, protected individual
liberty.

Watching, meeting, and especially working with people who
don’t fit the official stereotype provide North Koreans with
an education as well. Knowledge is transmitted, curiosity is
aroused. Engagement is no panacea, but is more likely than
isolation to encourage Pyongyang’s positive evolution.

Banning Americans from visiting the North would be especially
perverse when the rest of the world remained free to go. Congress
should think how best to transform the North’s people as well
as government over the long-term.

We may never know what happened to Otto Warmbier. His tragic
case reminds us that visiting North Korea requires special caution.
But that’s no reason to block outsiders from going.

They have much both to learn and teach. Until the DPRK changes,
individual travelers may end up being most important and perhaps
only ambassadors to North Korea from democratic countries around
the world.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special
Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.