Americans strongly warned to stay out of North Korea

WASHINGTON — An American appears on a grainy video from inside North Korea, asking the U.S. government for help getting home: It’s a scene that’s been repeated over and over in the last decade. Now, U.S. officials and North Korea experts are extremely concerned that Americans are ignoring a very dangerous situation when they choose to go there.

“This is not the time for any American to even consider going to North Korea as a tourist. It is dangerous for Americans to be in North Korea, because this is a tense period,” Ambassador Joe Detrani, president of the Daniel Morgan Academy and former U.S. government mission manager for North Korea, told WTOP.

“They just had a fourth nuclear test and a launched a rocket that many believe was a pretext to test a delivery system for a nuclear weapon.  They know there will be additional sanctions imposed on them, so their relationship with the international community, certainly with the United States, is very tense.”

Late last November, the U.S. government reissued a long-standing warning: “The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK).”

The advisory essentially cautioned that Americans could find themselves in detention for no apparent reason: “Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States or other countries.”

While it is not completely clear why, University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier may have been the latest American to run afoul of North Korean authorities. After he was detained on Jan. 2, the North Korean news agency KCNA issued a statement claiming he had been detained for a “hostile act” against the government.

Warmbier had been in North Korea’s capitol, Pyongyang, with 10 other Americans on a New Year’s holiday tour from China. Gareth Johnson, CEO of the Young Pioneers Travel tour company, which sponsored the trip, issued a statement Jan. 23.

“On January 2 one of our customers, Otto Warmbier, was detained at Pyongyang Airport. He was detained as the last person to go through customs. Our guide was informed by an airport official that he had been taken to hospital. Our guide attempted to go back to see him, but was unable to as she had been ushered through immigration by airport staff.”

THE STATE DEPARTMENT told WTOP in a statement that they were aware of media reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea, and said, “The welfare of U.S. citizens is one of the Department’s highest priorities.  In cases where U.S. citizens are reported detained in North Korea, we work closely with the Swedish Embassy, which serves as the United States’ Protecting Power in North Korea.”

In Warmbier’s case, the North Korean government further claimed he “entered the country under the guise of a tourist,” an excuse used numerous times in the last decade.

California humanitarian Sandra Suh was deported from North Korea in April 2015 on charges of using her humanitarian status in North Korea (for 10 years) as a cover to gather and produce anti-Pyongyang propaganda. Matthew Todd Miller, also from California, faced the same charges. The regime claimed he went to North Korea intending to get arrested.

Numerous tour operators, most of whom operate in China, say excursions to North Korea are safe, legal and fun, but more than a dozen Americans have learned otherwise.

According to open source reporting, 13 Americans have spent more than 2,028 days in detention inside North Korea since 1996, most of that time coming after 2009. Some has suffered life threatening illnesses.

“This is really tragic, just tragic,” said Detrani, referring to the stream of Americans detained by the government led by Kim Jong Un.

Detrani said of Warmbier, “They claimed he was manipulated by the U. S. government. This is just one of many U.S. citizens who have been detained by the North Korean government under suspicious circumstances.”

IN EACH CASE, those detained have been let go, but not until high-level U.S. government officials got involved.

“We go back to Merrill Newman, a Korean War veteran who was detained in North Korea for more than a month, and Jeffrey Fowle, who was held for five months. We go back to Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae — the director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, had to go to North Korea to bring them back to the United States,” said Detrani.

Another American, Kim Dong Chul, a naturalized citizen, is currently being held in North Korea on espionage charges.

The State Department said it’s continuing to work on getting Chul and Warmbier released, but added, “We have no further information to share due to privacy considerations.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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