US to review North Korea travel ban, top diplomat says

Ban enacted shortly after death of Otto Warmbier

By CNN'S JAMIE CRAWFORD AND NICOLE GAOUETTE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT
Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images

(CNN) - The United States is considering reviewing a travel ban put in place barring most American citizens from traveling to North Korea, the State Department's top North Korea negotiator said Wednesday.

Steve Biegun told reporters the evaluation would take place "early next year" if the conditions are right. However, the US appears to only be looking at changes that could allow American aid workers inside the country.

Biegun is in Seoul to meet with his South Korean counterparts to coordinate discussions on both countries' negotiations with North Korea.

Biegun and other US diplomatic officials with him refused to answer if the entire travel ban was being reviewed, or just the provisions regarding employees of humanitarian groups.

Washington enacted the ban shortly after the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who spent nearly 17 months detained in North Korea on espionage charges.

Warmbier was released by Pyongyang in June 2017 and returned to the United States in a vegetative state. He died days later.

The North Koreans said he contracted botulism and slipped into a coma while in prison, but Warmbier's doctors in the United States said that description was inaccurate. Warmbier's father, Fred, told CNN in an interview last year that his son suffered severe brain damage.

In August, the State Department extended the ban for another year, allowing Americans to travel to North Korea only under a limited set of circumstances.

Trips can be made if they are deemed of US national interest or if the traveler is a journalist reporting on the country. Exceptions are also made for representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross or the American Red Cross traveling on an officially sponsored mission, or if a trip is justified by "compelling humanitarian considerations."

For now, Biegun said "the United States and the United Nations will continue to closely review requests for exemptions of licenses for the delivery of the assistance to the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). We'll still prioritize the safety and security of Americans."

Biegun said that the case of an American citizen who attempted to illegally travel to North Korea two months ago but was swiftly expelled from the country gave Washington "greater confidence about the safety and security of Americans traveling to the DPRK."

"The government of the DPRK handled the review of the American citizen's expulsion expeditiously and with great discretion and sensitivity through diplomatic channels," Biegun said.

NGOs and other charities have complained that the travel ban and the punishing sanctions levied by North Korea as punishment for its nuclear weapons program have impeded their ability to deliver much needed aid to communities in North Korea.

Humanitarian assistance to North Korea is excluded from the punitive measures levied against Pyongyang, but aid agencies have said the process of receiving an exemption can be onerous and full of red tape.

Others have complained the UN measures and Washington's own sanctions have led to a decline in donations, as many fear the consequences of accidentally running afoul of sanctions or even associating with North Korea.

"I understand many American humanitarian aid organizations operating in the DPRK are concerned the strict enforcement of international sanctions has occasionally impeded the legitimate humanitarian assistance to the Korean people," Biegun said.

"I'll be sitting down with American aid groups early in the new year to discuss how we can better ensure the delivery of appropriate assistance through the course of the coming winter."

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