Congress plans to take up new legislation as soon as next month to implement a ban on travel to North Korea by US citizens following Otto Warmbier’s death after he was imprisoned by North Korea for 17 months.
The House foreign affairs committee will mark up a bipartisan bill that would outlaw most US travel to North Korea for five years. The legislation would ban tourism travel altogether and require US citizens who do visit the country to get a license from the Treasury Department.
The committee will take up the legislation, sponsored by South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson and California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff, as early as next month, a Republican committee aide told CNN.
“We need to,” said House foreign affairs chairman Ed Royce. “People watch these websites that guarantee they can go into North Korea and be secure, be safe, these glossy presentations — and the reality is that many of these visitors end up being used as bargaining chips by the North Korean regime.”
Wilson and Schiff’s bill was introduced before Warmbier’s death, but his ordeal — the 22-year-old college student from Ohio suffered brain damage while imprisoned leading to his death — has added urgency to efforts to pass a new law curbing travel to the country.
“Sadly, because of Otto Warmbier it’s certainty been expedited,” Wilson said in an interview. “The American people need to do know this. Because it does sound exotic to go to a Hermit Kingdom, but it’s not exotic, it’s dangerous and you’re dealing with a maniacal society.”
Wilson noted there are still three American citizens imprisoned in North Korea, and at least 17 have been detained in the past decade with some having to endure show trials. High-profile diplomatic visits have often been required to free them.
Wilson himself has visited Pyongyang, going as part of a congressional delegation back in 2003, before the country became a nuclear state.
The legislation would make some exceptions for US travel to North Korea, including family re-unification or for humanitarian work.
There are some concerns about implementing a blanket travel ban to North Korea, with the fight over the Cuba embargo still lingering on Capitol Hill after the Trump administration rolled back some of President Barack Obama’s efforts to normalize relations.
“I find it odd that we’re talking about that, because it goes against what a lot of people have been saying related to Cuba, that we should never restrict Americans’ right to go anywhere,” said Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who opposed Obama’s Cuba efforts. “And now we’ve got some members who espouse that view, saying but in the case of North Korea that’s different.”
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, said he supported a response to Pyongyang after Warmbier’s death but was also considering alternative options.
“I think that we’ve got to do something to keep our citizens safe,” Engel said. “It may be a travel ban or it may be something else. So right now, we’re sort of discussing what the alternatives might be, if there is a travel ban, would it be in total, would it be a travel ban just with tourism?”