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Awkward: the upheld travel ban still applies to North Korea, too

Will President Trump move to remove North Korea as nuclear negotiations go on?

North Koreans are still banned from traveling to the United States.
North Koreans are still banned from traveling to the United States.
Carl Court/Getty Images

The Supreme Court just decided to uphold President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which prevents some citizens from five Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Iran, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia — from entering the US.

But it’s worth noting something else: North Korea is actually on the list as well.

That’s striking, especially since almost no one from the famously hermetic country actually visits the United States. And those that do, surprisingly, come to America from South Korea.

So why is North Korea on the travel ban list at all? Simply put, it happened while the US and North Korea were threatening to bomb each other for much of last year — but the move doesn’t make much sense now, as relations between Washington and Pyongyang have much improved in recent months.

Here’s how North Korea ended up on Trump’s travel ban list

Trump actually didn’t bar North Koreans from coming to America in the first two bans he issued last year. The one the Supreme Court upheld on Tuesday was the third iteration after lower courts struck the first two down. The original bans narrowed in on Muslim-majority countries.

But that’s not all Trump was up to last year: He spent much of it threatening war with North Korea over Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal.

Tensions reached an especially high point in June 2017, when North Korea returned American Otto Warmbier from around 17 months in captivity. He came home in a coma, likely due to his time in prison, and died six days later from brain injuries.

That led the State Department to bar Americans from traveling to North Korea, citing the danger to their lives.

Then the White House took it one step further in September 2017, when it added North Korea to the travel ban list. That move formed part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, which aims to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically.

The problem, experts noted at the time, is that North Koreans just don’t travel to America. The administration “should have checked if there is North Korean immigration before they banned it,” John Delury, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told the Washington Post last September. “Why are you banning something that doesn’t exist?”

But if a North Korean does want to enter the US, they could — after a long and grueling process.

They would have to defect from North Korea, make it to South Korea, acquire a South Korean passport, and then enter the United States (South Korean law allows for this).

Trump’s travel ban crucially doesn’t block people who went through that process to come to the US, so it’s very possible for a (former) North Korean to visit New York City, even now.

Could North Korea be removed from the travel ban list?

The case the Supreme Court ruled on today was a challenge to the travel ban. But only the five Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, and Somalia — were under consideration.

A ban on North Korean travelers, however, continues as of December. (Individuals from banned countries are theoretically eligible for waivers, but in practice, waivers are few and far between.)

But considering the warming relations between Trump and Kim — as evidenced by the summit on June 12 that put the two countries on a diplomatic path — it’s an open question if Trump will remove North Korea from the list, even though Trump did officially designate it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

After all, it could help convince Pyongyang to curb its nuclear program, while giving little to nothing away. But the State Department didn’t immediately respond to inquiries about whether or not removing North Korea from the travel ban list is in the works.