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Congress Considers Banning Tourism to North Korea

Congress may ban tourism to North Korea next month, so if you want to visit Pyongyang on holiday, you’d better hurry.

Actually, don’t. The Kim family regime has been kidnapping American citizens and using them as leverage against the United States government—what Korean experts call “hostage diplomacy”—for years. And on the off chance you haven’t heard, earlier this month it sent University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier home with a fatal brain injury after first sentencing him to fifteen years of slave labor.

The United States lifted most of the travel restrictions to Cuba last year, finally ending its absurd curtailment of Americans’ freedom of movement. Until then, it was okay to visit Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria as a tourist. Cuba alone was off limits. There was only one way to resolve that anachronistic contradiction—lift the Cuban travel ban or prohibit tourism to every hostile state in the world. The latter would have been both pointless and draconian, and Congress eased up on the Cuban ban last year shortly before the seemingly immortal Fidel Castro finally keeled over.

Prohibiting American tourism in Cuba was part of the long-standing sanctions package imposed after Castro nationalized American property in the 1950s. The proposed ban to North Korea is being considered for an entirely different reason—because North Korea is dangerous.

Vacationing in Havana has never been dangerous. Depending on where exactly you live, it’s probably less dangerous than staying home. The Castros don’t snatch random tourists out of hotels. And while the island nation has a host of debilitating problems, crime, at least, is not one of them. Cuba is poor and oppressive, but it’s one of the safest countries on earth.  

North Korea is actually dangerous, at least for Americans. “It does sound exotic to go to a Hermit Kingdom,” says one of the bill’s co-sponsor Representative Joe Wilson, (R-SC), “but it's not exotic, it's dangerous and you're dealing with a maniacal society."

Lots of countries are dangerous. Mexico is flooded with American tourists at all times, yet it’s the second-most violent country in the world after Syria. You can go to Syria, though, if you really want to. (Don’t.) You are also free to visit crime-ridden Venezuela. You can go to Iraq. (I went seven times.) You can go to Somalia. You can climb Mount Everest, which is even more likely to kill you. Earlier this month, Alex Honnold free climbed the near-vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. If you want to put your ass on the line for adventure and kicks, have at it. It’s not the government’s business.

At least it usually isn’t. Congress could argue that it is the government’s business if North Korean authorities yank you off your plane at the airport so they can use you as a bargaining chip. The Israeli government bans its citizens from travel to Lebanon for a similar reason. Hezbollah likes to kidnap Israelis and swap them. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese prisoners, including the convicted child-murderer Samir Kuntar. In exchange, Hezbollah returned the mutilated bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Israelis can and do visit other Arab countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Oman, but heading to Lebanon puts the entire country at risk, so it’s outlawed.

But that’s not why Congress is mulling a travel ban to North Korea. No, this is about keeping us safe. It’s more like the seatbelt law than Israel’s travel ban to Hezbollahland. It won’t even have the unintended side effect of preventing the Kim regime from using American hostages as weapons against the rest of us because the bill has a loophole. If you want to go there for a reason other than tourism, the Treasury Department will give you a permit. So when—not not if—Kim Jong-Un wants more hostages, he’ll just grab permitted travelers rather than tourists.

Unless the government thinks it’s right and proper to ban tourism in countries just because they are dangerous (which would logically begin with Syria and move directly to Mexico), Congress would be wise to drop this.

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