The unnecessary death of Otto Warmbier, the American student detained in North Korea for well over a year, has brought about profound shock. His sad fate has had a significant impact among North Korea watchers, who wonder what it might mean for people who visit the DPRK, for the downward spiral in North Korea’s relationship with the United States, and, of course, for the Warmbier family. In Washington, there are rumblings of imposing a travel ban on Americans going to North Korea and perhaps even sanctions on tour companies who take Westerners. The company that took Warmbier to North Korea, Young Pioneer Tours, has announced they will no longer take US citizens. Other companies are reviewing their policies.
Some argue that millions of North Koreans suffer daily at the hands of the regime and the obsession with Warmbier isn’t warranted given the DPRK’s serial transgressions. But it isn’t selfish or white privilege or racist to connect more with this white Midwestern kid’s tale. It is, after all, very, very hard for any of us to imagine what it is like to be a North Korean with the intense pressure for cultural and political conformity, the stresses of eking out a meager existence, and the daily restrictions and repressions. I’ve personally seen the place grind people down over several years and I still struggle to imagine it. But it is very easy to imagine being that kid and making a similar, normally trivial, mistake. Who hasn’t done something silly when they were young?
Yet instead of a light reprimand and life lesson learned, Warmbier came home in a coma and died a few days later. In a narrow sense, we can only guess why he was in coma. In the broader sense, we know exactly why: he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for barely trying to steal a propaganda poster. The DPRK accused him of being supported by a church and by the CIA “to overthrow the social system of the DPRK while viciously slandering the dignity of its supreme leadership and its political system.” Never mind that he was probably unable even to read the sign he apparently grabbed for those few seconds.
With the death of Warmbier, the three Korean-Americans still detained by Pyongyang and multiple other detainees have complicated US-DPRK interactions in recent years, a travel ban for Americans appears in the cards. However, the benefits may not outweigh the costs.
The Case for Banning Tourism
It is easy to see the attractiveness of a travel ban: it would be a quick (if only partial) fix to a long-standing thorn in the side of the US government: Americans being detained by Pyongyang. Since 2009, American tourists have been basically accepted as readily as any other group. They currently make up about 20 percent of Western tourists to North Korea: around 1,500 out of 5,000 or so people per year. Indeed, more Americans than ever visit the North and they are clearly more likely to be detained than any other group of people. But over the past eight years, a clear pattern has emerged in which Americans are incarcerated by Pyongyang and a high-level US official has to visit to secure their release. These detainees become a point of leverage in that tortured relationship.
Another justification put forward for banning tourism by US citizens is that it would deny the regime a source of funds. This may also be true, but with only 5,000 or so Western tourists per year, it doesn’t amount to much. (The average tourist spends $1,800 to $2,500 on a trip to North Korea.) This argument also tends to underestimate the diversification and marketization of the North Korean economy. There isn’t a pot of money labeled “Regime Funds” that siphons off tourism money. There are multiple companies connected to various official institutions, paying individuals’ wages, buying inputs from elsewhere in the market economy, and sometimes even hiding their earnings from the authorities.
That said, all DPRK companies are not equal—an Air Koryo passenger, for example, is handing over cash to a military-owned company. It is also often very hard to tell who owns what hotel or restaurant; nor do most tourists care.
And while the total amount of North Korea’s earnings from tourism may be small, cutting it off would have some punitive value. It would also send a signal that the international community was willing to go after North Korean earnings large or small in the ongoing confrontation over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Finally, a ban on travel would no doubt deter most of the roughly 1,500 American tourists a year from visiting.
The Case Against Banning Tourism
Only four of the 15 Americans that have been held since 2009 appear to have been tourists. For example, the three Korean-Americans that were detained for separate incidents (Kim Hak-Song, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Dong Chul) were all there on education or business visas. Several other detainees since 2009 illegally crossed the border for various reasons, such as religious beliefs or journalistic opportunities. A ban on tourism would reduce the number of detainees the United States has to deal with, but it probably wouldn’t eliminate them altogether.
The international community would incur losses by going after the small tourism industry. First, seeing the place can have a genuine effect on visitors. The DPRK forces you to confront the nature of propaganda, freedom and control. It can often inspire people to stay involved in North Korea issues, hoping for and sometimes working on solutions to the myriad problems facing the country. Seeing the horrible conditions inside the country, even under controlled conditions, has a far greater impact than just reading about the country.
Second, tourists can have a significant effect on North Koreans, even if it is fleeting. When an American gives a soccer ball as a gift to a family of picnicking Koreans after a little kick-about (and his guide lets them know the tourist is American), it becomes a real life experience for that person. Of course, it runs up against a lifetime of propaganda, but it still ensures that the only unmediated experience with Americans those people may ever have has been positive.
More importantly, tourism has had a real impact on the class of people we need to connect with the most in the long term: middle and upper middle-class residents of Pyongyang. There has been a profound change in social attitudes among the community of citizens that are authorized to deal with foreigners in Pyongyang. In the past decade, there has been increased curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and open-mindedness among members of this group. In addition, these people have friends and friends of friends who also experience the outside world more, mostly through commercial ties with China. These people may not be able to change the country overnight, but they are its most important constituency for change, and in the long run, will become even more important.
Finally, tourism has been an extremely useful source of information for the community of Korea watchers. Tourists often identify and provide valuable insights into social and economic changes in a way that wasn’t possible before. Cutting off this source of information would be a loss for Korea analysts.
Tourism hasn’t been the engine for change that some hoped it might be, perhaps unrealistically, when North Korean officials began talking it up in the mid-1990s. But it is not without its benefits. Thus, any decision to try to curtail US or other tourism to North Korea should not be taken lightly. It would be a satisfying and justifiable moral rebuke and may somewhat reduce leverage that Pyongyang occasionally exploits in its relationship with the United States. It could also prevent the next Otto Warmbier from making a minor mistake that ends up being costly beyond words. However, it would also make people in an isolated place a little less connected to the outside world and harder to understand. Like so much when it comes to North Korea, every option has downsides.