North Korea officially cut off for US travelers

Pyongyang airport; image by fljckr via Flickr CC-BY 2.0.
Pyongyang airport; image by fljckr via Flickr CC-BY 2.0.

The door is closing for US passport holders to access North Korea. As previously threatened the Department of State issued a rule today “declaring all U.S. passports invalid for travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) unless the travel meets certain criteria.” The rule was published in the Federal Register and takes effect in 30 days.

US Passports are invalid for travel to North Korea effective 1 September 2017
US Passports are invalid for travel to North Korea effective 1 September 2017

Here is the full explanatory text from the rule:

The Department of State has determined that the serious risk to United States nationals of arrest and long-term detention represents imminent danger to the physical safety of United States nationals traveling to and within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), within the meaning of 22 CFR 51.63(a)(3). Therefore, pursuant to the authority of 22 U.S.C. 211a and Executive Order 11295 (31 FR 10603), and in accordance with 22 CFR 51.63(a)(3), all United States passports are declared invalid for travel to, in, or through the DPRK unless specially validated for such travel, as specified at 22 CFR 51.64. The restriction on travel to the DPRK shall be effective 30 days after publication of this Notice, and shall remain in effect for one year unless extended or sooner revoked by the Secretary of State.

From an enforcement perspective some questions have been raised around whether the DPRK will cooperate with the ban or not. Given that all visitors must be part of a formal tour group, many of which have ties to the US outside of their operations in DPRK, the financial incentive to cooperate seems pretty solid.

It is also worth noting that this is not the first time such a move has been put in place. In 1987 the Reagan administration issued a similar ban regarding travel to Lebanon. That ban remained in place for a decade, eventually rescinded under the Clinton administration. The passport invalidation is a step beyond the economic travel prohibitions used against Cuba or Libya in the past.

The Lebanon ban was put in place amidst a violent civil war and multiple kidnappings of US citizens. The North Korea situation is different. Ostensibly the ban was triggered by the detention and eventual death of a US college student sentenced to 15 years in a labor prison for attempting to steal propaganda from his hotel room. He was released earlier this year and died shortly after his return to the United States. But the threat of day-to-day violence against visitors is hardly the same as in a country fighting a civil war. Still, the ability of US authorities to react or respond to any incident in DPRK is very, very limited. Arguably that justifies the move in the sense of the US Government taking seriously its responsibility for protecting citizens abroad.

But, yeah, this pretty much cuts off the country now from any US visitors unless they hold a second passport. And it is hard to see the positive value that brings towards the effort of peaceful relations or encouraging democracy.

Header image: Pyongyang airport by fljckr via Flickr CC-BY 2.0.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. This is a shame. There’s a DPRK aviation tour (Wonsan Air Festival) my friend had wanted to go to in September!

    1. I had also been considering going to that event, though I ended up with a scheduling conflict this year. I know a group going and will be sad not to join them.

  2. How is it “official”? It’s up to the DPRK whether to accept a US passport and issue a visa. Do we share a border somewhere with the DPRK I don’t know about?

    1. It is official because the US Government published the new rule in the Federal Register.

      Choosing to ignore federal regulations doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

      Also, there have been mixed reports as to whether tour groups will continue to accept travelers on US passports, whether the DPRK will allow those travelers in or if China/Russia will cooperate in reporting the travel details out. But none of that changes the legality question.

    2. Well, it begs the question – is a law actually a law if it is unenforceable? I’m not debating the regulation exists. And I get the point that agencies may choose to bar Americans from participating on tours. But to suggest the US passport is now “illegible” is ridiculous as US Customs and Immigration is in no way involved with travel to the DPRK. And I’m fairly certain China can NOT
      legally pass to the US information about Americans legally entering China off Air Koryo flights.

    3. I’ve seen you call this law unenforceable. I’ve only been an immigration lawyer about a year but I can tell you it’s astonishing how much the DHS knows. I wouldn’t bet against them not knowing you’re there

    4. Well, the best way to find out is to “test” the theory (test the regulation). Unfortunately, I’m not available for the “testing pool.” 😉

    5. It’s a regulation not law. The biggest issue is if you get in trouble over there. The regulation will block the Swiss (I think) from assisting a detained us national. It’s up to the host country to decide what is acceptable for admittance.

    6. You mean the Swedish? We’ll have to see how it pans out. Frankly it’s not like they were able to do much in the first place anyway. Thus the new regulation, I suppose 🙂

    7. What Nathan said is probably the main practical impact: that if something goes wrong while you are there, you are even more screwed than before. Kind of like when some of us might or might not have traveled to Cuba years before those restrictions were relaxed, the main risk wasn’t that you would likely get in trouble with the U.S. gov’t. It was that if something went wrong in Cuba, you shouldn’t have been there and were on your own.

  3. I can only imagine the uproar from the “freedom fighters” if this had been enacted by the “black guy”.

    It would have been the act of a dictator…

  4. So frankly here I can understand a travel ban, especially given the current situation. That said, ramping back up on Cuba… that is stupid for sure.

  5. Just for clarity, this applies to tourism or visits otherwise not in the national interest of the United States. The exception for “national interests” still applies, whether it’s related to diplomacy or humanitarian visits. I have several friends who have visited NK on humanitarian (mostly medical) missions, and it is my understanding that they would still be able to do so, despite this new regulation.

    1. Yes, the government can issue exceptions. It remains unclear how successful such requests are likely to be. I’m skeptical.

Comments are closed.