North Korea may soon be literally off limits to all American citizens.
Last month, the shadowy and tragic death of American student Otto Warmbier after imprisonment in North Korea led many Americans to wonder why US citizens like him had been traveling to the country in the first place. Each year, an estimated 800 US citizens make the trip to the world’s most reclusive country.
But that may be about to change.
According to a BBC report Friday morning, two companies that organize tours to North Korea have been notified of an upcoming US government travel ban on all US citizens traveling to the country. The China-based travel companies Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours were told that the ban will be announced July 27, which coincides with Victory Day celebrations in North Korea that commemorate the end of the Korean War in 1953, reported the BBC.
After a 30-day grace period from that date, all US passports will be made invalid for travel to North Korea. The State Department has not made an official announcement on the ban, though spokesperson Heather Nauert confirmed in an email statement to Vox that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decided to impose "geographical travel restriction" for North Korea.
“Once in effect, U.S. passports will be invalid for travel to, through and in North Korea, and individuals will be required to obtain a passport with a special validation in order to travel to or within North Korea,” she said.
Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours said they were notified of the ban by the Swedish Embassy in North Korea, which conducts all consular services for the US in the country. Per the BBC, the embassy is currently working to verify the number of US tourists left in North Korea and encouraging all of them to leave the country immediately.
The travel ban sends a clear sign to North Korea — but will it work?
Talk of a potential ban comes just after North Korea’s National Tourism Administration revamped its website and launched a new tourism campaign without, it seems, even the slightest hint of irony.
"Today the tourist industry in the DPRK is developing afresh under the wise leadership of supreme leader Kim Jong Un," wrote the country’s official tourism site, seemingly oblivious to the global controversy surrounding Warmbier’s death. They advertised beaches where "the water is not so deep, yet clear, the sand is as white as snow,” as well as golf courses that boast "an adequate number of service personnel."
North Korea has been trying to grow its tourism industry for several years now. In 2015, it said it wanted to increase its number of visitors per year to 2 million by 2020, though in 2015 it had just 100,000. Banning all US citizens from traveling to the country is a clear rebuke of this goal, but it remains to be seen how, or even if, North Korea will respond.
Warmbier had been detained in North Korea for 17 months after allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel during a guided tour of the country. He was released last month in a comatose state, unable to speak or respond to those around him. Pyongyang said his condition was brought about by severe food poisoning, but doctors tending to him at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center flatly dismissed those claims.
On June 19, just days after returning home to his family, Warmbier died.
Tensions between Pyongyang and Washington have been steadily escalating ever since. North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this month, prompting strong backlash from the US and its allies. This travel ban comes as the Trump administration struggles to find new and effective ways to rein in North Korea, and the date for its announcement (July 27 — the same day as important Victory Day celebrations in North Korea) suggests that the US government wants to use it to send a signal to the country that its actions have diplomatic consequences.
The question is: Will the leaders of the Hermit Kingdom listen?
The travel ban may assuage the fears of US citizens worried that their children or loved ones might end up like Warmbier, but it’s not clear how effective it will be in pressuring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to reveal more information about what happened to Warmbier, or about the fate of the other three US citizens still being held in captivity by Pyongyang.