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After Otto Warmbier's Release, Will U.S. Ban Travel To North Korea?

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After Otto Warmbier's Release, Will U.S. Ban Travel To North Korea?

Politics & Policy

After Otto Warmbier's Release, Will U.S. Ban Travel To North Korea?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Trump administration is looking into ways to stop Americans from going to North Korea. This comes after the dramatic news this week that an American student detained for more than a year in North Korea returned home in a coma. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Fred Warmbier describes his son Otto as a thrill seeker who was on a trip organized by a Chinese-based company called Young Pioneer Tours.

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FRED WARMBIER: They advertise it's the safest trip ever. And, you know, it's the one your mother wouldn't want you to go on. But what they do is they provide fodder for the North Koreans. And they happen - my son happened to become fodder for the North Koreans.

KELEMEN: The travel company claims that North Korea is still safe. An official told a news site that focuses on the region that only one person was arrested among the 8000 or so international travelers that have been on its tours. The State Department warns Americans against travel to North Korea. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is signaling he may go further.

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REX TILLERSON: We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea. We've not come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it.

KELEMEN: It's highly unusual for the U.S. government to restrict the ability of Americans to go abroad. A former Treasury Department official, Elizabeth Rosenberg, says there are plenty of restrictions on what Americans can do in countries like Iran or North Korea that face sanctions. It would take an act of Congress for a travel ban.

ELIZABETH ROSENBERG: Putting in place the kind of restrictions that would require U.S. citizens to seek a license in order to go to North Korea - most of that falls to Congress to do.

KELEMEN: South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson is co-sponsoring a House bill to do just that. And the congressman says he wants to make sure that the Treasury Department does not issue licenses for tourism.

JOE WILSON: If there are humanitarian efforts that are being conducted, that's fine. But tourism really only backs up a totalitarian regime.

KELEMEN: Congressman Wilson went on a congressional delegation to North Korea back in 2003 and describes it as a Potemkin village.

WILSON: It appears to be exotic to go to the country. But it's all staged. People don't need to go because there's nothing real. While I was there, it was very clear to me that the people on the street, the people that we met on the tours that we had were not real.

KELEMEN: Wilson points out that 17 Americans have been detained in recent years in North Korea. Three are still in jail. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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