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Americans may face a travel ban to North Korea

June 22,2017
WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is considering banning travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea, officials said Tuesday, as outrage grew over the death of American student Otto Warmbier and U.S. President Donald Trump declared it a “total disgrace.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has the authority to cut off travel to North Korea with the stroke of the pen, has been weighing such a move since late April, when American teacher Tony Kim was detained in Pyongyang, a senior State Department official said. No ban is imminent, but deliberations gained new urgency after Warmbier’s death, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal diplomatic discussions.’

Even as Warmbier’s family prepared to mourn him at a public funeral service Thursday in Ohio, the circumstances behind his death remained unclear. The coroner’s office in Hamilton County, Ohio, said it had accepted Warmbier’s case but had only performed an external examination on his body because the family had objected to an autopsy.

Warmbier, 22, was released last week by North Korea in a coma, but died days later, his family said. The former University of Virginia student had been visiting North Korea on a tour group when he was detained, sentenced to 15 years hard labor for subversion, and held for more than 17 months.

“It’s a total disgrace what happened to Otto,” Trump said in the Oval Office. “That should never ever be allowed to happen.”

Suggesting former President Barack Obama bears some blame, Trump said “the result would have been a lot different” had Warmbier been brought home sooner. Obama’s office had no reaction, but his former aides have said he worked tirelessly to try to get Warmbier and other Americans released from North Korea.

From the White House to Capitol Hill, pressure mounted for a tough U.S. response, even as U.S. diplomats sought to protect others Americans from facing a similar fate. Three other U.S. citizens, including Kim, are still being held in North Korea.

Barring Americans from stepping foot in North Korea would mark the latest U.S. step to isolate the furtive, nuclear-armed nation, and protect U.S. citizens who may be allured by the prospect of traveling there. Nearly all Americans who have gone to North Korea have left without incident. But some have been seized and given draconian sentences for seemingly minor offenses.

The U.S. government strongly warns Americans against traveling to North Korea, but doesn’t prohibit it, despite other sanctions targeting the country. It’s unclear exactly how many Americans go to North Korea every year. Those who typically do travel from China, where tour groups market trips to adventure-seekers.

Some of those companies - including China-based Young Pioneer Tours, which took Warmbier to Pyongyang - have now stopped taking Americans. Other travel companies say they’re considering a similar restriction.

The United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations. The United States has been pressing Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons development and urging China and other countries to starve the North of funding for the program. But on Tuesday, Trump suggested that strategy had failed.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “At least I know China tried!”

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans found rare bipartisan consensus in denouncing the North. Several senators said they were considering a travel ban. In the House, lawmakers lined up behind legislation from Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat, and Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican.

Under their proposal, the Treasury Department would be ordered to prohibit all financial transactions related to travel to North Korea by Americans, unless specifically authorized by a U.S. license. No licenses would be issued for tourism.

AP