Letter to the US State Department Regarding the Travel Ban to North Korea

Mr. Antony Blinken
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

August 2, 2021

Dear Secretary of State Antony Blinken:

We write to you on behalf of the LIFT (Let Individuals Freely Travel) campaign, which seeks to reinstate the long-standing U.S. policy that allowed U.S. citizens to travel freely to North Korea. Our campaign represents a network of individuals and organizations, including Korean Americans separated from family members in North Korea and humanitarian and non-governmental organizations working for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula.

We write to urge you to lift the 2017 travel restriction prohibiting U.S. citizens from traveling to, in, or through North Korea. This travel ban prevents Korean Americans from visiting their family members in North Korea, hinders humanitarian organizations from delivering critical assistance, and obstructs U.S. citizens from engaging in important people-to-people exchanges and peace-building efforts. These consequences are inconsistent with this Administration’s avowed policy of limiting adverse humanitarian impacts in the implementation of U.S. sanctions. Furthermore, the travel ban has outlived its initial purpose; does not advance U.S. efforts to achieve a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; and conflicts with the long-established, constitutionally-protected right of free travel for American citizens.

The 2017 travel ban abridges U.S. citizens’ civil liberties to reunite with their families. In contrast, we applaud the Biden Administration’s policy of reversing the Trump Administration’s draconian rule of separating families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. In the same vein, the Biden Administration should embrace its moral and ethical obligation to enable the reunion of families victimized by the unended Korean War.

The travel ban also violates the civil liberties of Americans who, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have the right to freedom of movement. Specifically, it violates Article 13, Section 2, which states that ‘Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”  The jurisprudence of U.S. courts in balancing the constitutional right of travel with national security interests also weighs in favor of lifting the 2017 travel ban.

Whatever purpose was to be served by protecting the safety of U.S. citizens or the negotiating leverage of the U.S. government with North Korea is no longer compelling. Nor did it ever justify the discriminatory impact the travel ban has had on Korean Americans, or on those who see their travel for humanitarian or peace purposes as an expression of faith-based religious beliefs or free speech political opinion.

For decades, tens of thousands of Americans have traveled to North Korea safely and without incident. Between 2000 and 2017, an estimated 6,000 Korean Americans traveled to North Korea—many of them seeking to reunite with family members from whom they became separated due to the Korean War. In addition, since the early 1990s, U.S. humanitarian organizations have been sending their U.S. workers into North Korea, including outside of the capital city of Pyongyang. While the exact number of U.S. citizen travelers to North Korea may not be publicly-reported, there is little doubt that thousands have traveled there in the decade prior to the 2017 travel ban, and hundreds more have a purpose to travel there in 2022.

When the Trump Administration announced in 2017 that U.S. passports would become invalid for travel to, in, or through North Korea, the impact of this policy was immediate and dramatic. Approximately 200 U.S. citizens living in North Korea—many of them Christians practicing their faith by engaging in humanitarian work—were forced to leave the country. Meanwhile, Korean Americans who already had limited means of contact with their families in North Korea became further cut off from their loved ones.

Historians have estimated that up to 10 million Koreans became separated from their family members as a result of the Korean War and division of the Korean Peninsula. After the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, no one had any expectation that the national division would endure indefinitely. The main focus of the 1954 Geneva Conference was a peaceful settlement of the Korea question, but it ended without resolution. Instead, the line dividing the two Koreas was effectively sealed that year after the exchange of POWs and a small number of displaced foreign civilians. Given the massive loss of life during the war, many families were unable to determine whether their loved ones had died or were still alive on the other side of the border. Since then, in the 70-year-long wait to receive news or find each other again, an entire generation has passed on, having never fulfilled their dream of reuniting with their loved ones.

Following the Korean War, more than 100,000 Koreans who are from separated families came to live in the United States. The youngest of those who lived through the war are now in their late 70s, 80s, and 90s, and time is running out for them to be reunited with their families. To grasp the urgency of this issue, consider that in South Korea, over 60% of the 133,484 people who applied for separated-family reunions since 2000 have already died. The Republic of Korea (ROK) National Red Cross estimates that, as of May 2021, only 48,022 are still alive.

The 2017 travel ban has also negatively impacted humanitarian organizations that provide life-saving aid to the most vulnerable populations in North Korea. The ban requires U.S. NGOs to apply for and receive a Special Validation Passport on a per-trip basis. The application process provides no clear timeline, and it can take anywhere from five to 55 days for NGOs to receive a determination. The new requirement has obstructed the work of many groups, causing delays in life-saving aid and treatment. Approximately 25 U.S. NGOs were operating inside North Korea when the travel ban was imposed in 2017. It is estimated that less than half are able to continue their operations in North Korea today.

For example, several U.S.-based humanitarian and development projects in the Rason Free Economic Zone have either completely shut down or have become drastically limited in their capacity due to the travel ban. One such example is the Morning Star Corporation, which provides medicine to various remote villages in northeastern North Korea. Prior to the travel ban, Morning Star had residence in North Korea and was working 24/7 on a pharmaceutical project that provided much-needed medicine to local fishing and farming villages. Since the travel ban, Morning Star has struggled to obtain Special Validation Passports, after which only a select number of visits were approved; this drastically reduced the amount of medicine delivered to remote, rural areas of North Korea. Another organization, Ignis Community, also had residential status in Pyongyang and provided daily therapy and medical treatment to children with cerebral palsy and autism. After the travel ban, Ignis Community was denied the Special Validation Passports multiple times, and as a result, medical treatment at the Pyongyang Spine Rehabilitation Center has practically come to a halt. Treatment had already been severely limited before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

At times, reputable humanitarian organizations with longstanding programs in North Korea have been prohibited from traveling to monitor aid shipments, with no clear reasoning provided by the State Department. In this way, the travel ban even undermines U.S. government policy of ensuring the aid goes to the intended end-use. The burdensome process and cost of applying for the Special Validation Passport, as well as the frequent denial of applications, have discouraged most people from even applying. Although the U.S. government may not intend to hurt the common people of North Korea or hinder humanitarian assistance to the neediest, in reality, its travel ban is having such deleterious effects.

Many humanitarians engaged in North Korea are motivated by their Christian faith, and the 2017 travel ban hinders their ability to act freely on their religious conviction. These humanitarians are particularly inspired by the Biblical messages of:

  • Peace and reconciliation in Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers.”) and 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 (“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”); and
  • Serving the poor, the hungry, the orphaned, and the oppressed in Matthew 25:37-40 (“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”), and James 1:27 (“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”)

Humanitarian organizations, with decades of collective experience working on the ground, actively want to engage in North Korea. Lifting the travel ban will not only allow many of them to carry out their religious convictions, but also help them to save lives in North Korea.

The travel ban also has impeded important civil society efforts to break down barriers and build trust between the people of nations still technically at war with each other. For example, in 2015, representatives of Women Cross DMZ, a U.S.-based women’s peacebuilding organization, traveled to North Korea for a women’s peace symposium and peace walks. The historic meeting of American and North Korean women, which included retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright and a five-star North Korean general, would not have been possible had a travel ban been in effect. By lifting the 2017 travel ban, the Biden Administration would enable people-to-people exchanges that are vital to helping transform 70 years of enmity into peaceful coexistence.

A decision not to renew the travel ban will be consistent with U.S. jurisprudence that recognizes the right to travel of U.S. citizens, and admonishes the U.S. government to avoid disparate impacts—even in the pursuit of national security—such as on free speech and expression of religious beliefs. The Supreme Court has recognized the liberty interest of U.S. citizens in their ability to travel, including abroad, and that this liberty interest is protected by the Fifth Amendment requirement of due process before it is restricted in any manner. In Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500 (1964), the Court ruled that travel restrictions as applied must be tied to a demonstrable national security interest and tailored to avoid undue burden on the right to travel. Furthermore, the majority opinion of the Court and concurring opinions of Justices Black and Douglas in that case have noted that the First Amendment protection for freedom of expression and association is closely related to the liberty interest in the right to travel. Thus, travel restrictions that unduly burden the right of association or expression are also constitutionally infirm.

Even in Zemel v. Rusk, 381 U.S. 1 (1965)—which upheld travel restrictions on a U.S. citizen seeking to travel to Cuba—the Court noted that restrictions on the right to travel as protected by the Fifth Amendment due process clause and First Amendment freedom of expression and association must be justified by the necessity of the restriction. As set forth in this letter, we believe the North Korea travel ban is overbroad as applied to those U.S. citizens engaged in sponsored humanitarian aid that is permitted under the existing North Korea sanctions regulations (see 31 C.F.R. §§ 510.213, 510.512), Korean Americans seeking to reunite with family members, and those undertaking efforts to promote peace and the civil society needs of ordinary North Korean people often based on religious or political beliefs.

The Trump administration imposed the travel ban in 2017 following the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, arguing that it was necessary for the safety of U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea, and to avoid hostage situations that impede the successful pursuit of U.S. denuclearization objectives. Yet of the tens of thousands of Americans who have visited North Korea for decades, we understand 20 U.S. citizens have been detained–all of them subsequently released and most without major physical harm or illness. We do not condone unjustified detentions by any government, let alone North Korea, and we cannot evaluate the specifics of these cases. But we at least contemplate the possibility that some of these detentions were based on some bona fide aspect of North Korean law, such as illegal crossing or committing acts to subvert or undermine the North Korean government. Regardless, the great weight of historical data suggests that careful attention to one’s activity while in North Korea, and those traveling there with permission of the North Korean government or a recognized sponsor, are unlikely to experience any impact on their safety. And of course, this is a personal decision informed by the warnings provided by the State Department. Furthermore, any justification for the travel ban based on maximizing U.S. government negotiating leverage in talks with North Korea on denuclearization is proven to be a chimera. There has been little if any progress on denuclearization with North Korea, so the travel ban cannot be justified on that basis.

With the exception of South Korea, the United States is the only country that bans their citizens from traveling to North Korea. All of the U.S.’s key allies—Canada, European Union, United Kingdom, and Japan—allow their citizens to travel to North Korea. While some governments advise against traveling to North Korea due to the uncertain security situation, they do not bar their citizens from traveling there.

Furthermore, North Korea is the only country in the world where the United States has imposed a blanket travel ban. The State Department warns Americans against traveling to countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen due to concerns of “terrorism, armed conflict and violent crime” in some cases and “risk of unjust detention” in others, but does not outright ban all citizens from traveling there. Blanket travel bans were last implemented in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but those are no longer in effect. The Treasury Department restricts tourism-related transactions in some foreign countries, such as Cuba, but there is no State Department-ordered travel ban on any other country except North Korea.

While North Korea is the only country that is the subject of a blanket U.S. travel ban, it is not the only country where U.S. citizens have been detained or have disappeared. In fact, more U.S. citizens have been detained or have disappeared in Mexico and Thailand than in North Korea. In just one day, in January of this year, Thai authorities arrested and detained 89 foreign tourists, including 10 U.S. citizens, for violating COVID-19 rules. According to the Mexican government’s official tally, 324 U.S. citizens have vanished in Mexico since 2006 and have not been found. According to a Los Angeles Times article in 2000, more U.S. citizens (61 people) were jailed in Tijuana, Mexico, at the time than in any other foreign penitentiary. Despite these numbers, the U.S. government has never imposed a blanket ban on U.S. citizens traveling to either country.

Lifting the U.S. travel ban to North Korea would help the Biden administration fulfill its commitment to principled diplomacy towards achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula. Days before his election, President Biden pledged to work towards reuniting “Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.” By sunsetting the Trump Administration’s travel ban, the Biden Administration will help thousands of Korean Americans reunite with their loved ones; will allow Americans who wish to contribute towards greater understanding and heal the wounds of the 71-year-old Korean War to do so; will support the Biden Administration’s humanitarian policy and lessen the impacts of sanctions and North Korea’s own socio-economic blight; will be more aligned with the existing humanitarian exception in the law for activities in North Korea; and will comport with the internationally-recognized and constitutionally-protected right of travel for individual Americans, without compromising actual national security objectives.


Ji-yeon Yuh
Associate Professor, Northwestern University
Co-Coordinator, Let Individuals Travel Freely (LIFT)
Board Member, Women Cross DMZ

Danny Park
Clinic Manager, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA)
Co-Coordinator, Let Individuals Travel Freely (LIFT) 
Steering Committee Member, Peace Treaty Now

CC: Kurt Campbell, National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific
Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State
Kin Moy, Senior Bureau Official of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau
Sung Kim, US Special Representative for North Korea
Ian Brownlee, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Consular Affairs