Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who died tragically after being imprisoned by North Korea, was once President Donald Trump's poster child for the U.S. administration's policy of maximum pressure. Trump even invited Warmbier's parents to the State of the Union speech, and his death became another argument for sanctions and threats of war.
But angry jibes at North Korean brutality disappeared once the president planned a summit with the North's leader, Kim Jong Un. At that meeting, Trump lavished praise on his counterpart. Warmbier, dead and buried, was a forgotten embarrassment.
Alas, the travel ban triggered by his death lives on, and the administration has just announced that it'll be extended for another year. It has become one more unnecessary obstacle to a peaceful solution to the North Korean problem. Americans are not allowed to visit North Korea, the only nation that has such an absolute ban. (Financial restrictions affect travelers to some other states, such as Cuba.) Exemptions are available for humanitarian, journalistic, and other purposes considered to be in the "national interest," but most contacts are barred.
Warmbier's case was perplexing, since Pyongyang always had wanted its Americans alive, enhancing their trade value. In a recent GQ magazine article, Doug Bock Clark added to earlier statements from Warmbier's doctors and coroner to report that there was no evidence the student was tortured. Experts interviewed by Clark suggested that Warmbier may have suffered an adverse allergic reaction. Whatever the cause of his death, the North does not make a regular habit of kidnapping U.S. tourists. Over the last two decades or so, 17 Americans have been detained. Only five were tourists, one of whom, Matthew Miller, purposely went out of his way to get arrested. Others were charged with illegal entry, religious activities, or other crimes in North Korea's view.
The ban on visiting the North is twinned with the administration’s bizarre prohibition on North Koreans entering America. The restriction grew out of Trump’s botched Muslim ban. Apparently to demonstrate that his ire was not limited to Muslim-majority countries, the executive order’s third iteration added North Korea and Venezuela to the list of forbidden nations. The administration may have hoped to enhance its policy of maximum pressure, even though the restriction only affected a handful of defectors, who should be warmly welcomed, and government officials, who should be engaged, albeit less warmly. There are no North Korean tourists to forbid.
The administration should reopen the borders both ways.
Trump has discovered that his June 12 agreement with Kim — which essentially commits the North to nothing specific — is only the start of what is likely to be an extended process. Washington should provide inexpensive rewards to encourage forward movement and lower tensions, ultimately advancing the process of denuclearization, even if only slowly. Reopening personal exchanges would be one such step.
Of course, a few travelers — about a thousand Americans went to North Korea annually before the ban — won't turn the totalitarian communist monarchy into a liberal capitalist democracy. But every American visitor contradicts the hostile propaganda long directed by North Korea's government to its people. In fact, after the summit, the Kim regime reportedly eliminated internal media attacks on the United States. Sending Americans back would reinforce this dramatic change.
There's great, and justified, skepticism that Kim is prepared to disarm. But any decision by him to do so will almost certainly take place only after he establishes a relationship with the United States. South Korean officials quoted him as saying: "If we meet often and build trust with the United States, and if an end to the war and nonaggression are promised, why would we live in difficulty with nuclear weapons?" The summit declaration also sets a natural progression: first relations, next a peace regime, and only then denuclearization. Which make sense, given the experience of Libya and elsewhere. Kim would be a fool to rely on Trump's verbal assurances and whatever paper guarantees emerge from a peace declaration or agreement.
To test Kim's sincerity, Washington should encourage greater bilateral contact at all levels. Ending the ban would demonstrate reduced U.S. hostility. Encouraging more contact, both private and official, would support the U.S. administration's claim that it is not promoting regime change.
Moreover, the travel should go both ways. The administration also should drop the prohibition on North Koreans coming to America. Although for the foreseeable future such visitors likely would be few and official, Washington should welcome anyone seeking to come. Even if future tourists are likely to be only the Korean elite, any contact makes a difference. Dropping the prohibition would also offer further evidence to Kim that the United States is serious about replacing decades of confrontation with not just peaceful coexistence but friendly cooperation.
Lifting travel restrictions would offer longer-term benefits as well. Even if the North refuses to denuclearize entirely, its adoption of a less hostile, more responsible policy toward the West would promote both stability and peace on the peninsula. A less threatening security environment — Washington should be skeptical of Pyongyang's claims, but the North has good reason to fear the United States — would create opportunities to improve human rights in North Korea. Internal change ultimately would be the best means to transform the country.
There are few downsides of allowing more contact with the North. No one seriously imagines North Korean visitors committing terrorist acts. Pyongyang would collect more cash, but the amount spent by U.S. visitors, including tourists, is modest. Other Americans could get into trouble, but despite the publicity surrounding Warmbier's imprisonment, such cases have been extremely rare. The North's decision to end rhetorical attacks on the United States makes future arbitrary arrests less likely. And U.S. tourists are free to visit plenty of risky places worldwide — why should Pyongyang be any different?
Ending the dual travel ban should be only the beginning for improving relations. Communication should become routine and involve more than nuclear negotiations. Diplomatic relations should follow. And if progress is made toward disarmament, economic sanctions should be relaxed as well. If so, allowing visits both ways between the United States and North Korea could be a start to a more serious and stable relationship, if not quite a beautiful friendship.
Trump deserves credit for gambling on the summit. To make his bet pay off, ordinary Americans — and North Koreans — need a stake in the other nation, too. The small friendships of tourism and other informal contacts are one way to start that happening.