Travel Ban to North Korea: The “Abstinence-Only” of U.S. Foreign Policy

President Biden said, “Human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.” If human rights are really the goal of U.S. foreign policy, banning travel to North Korea is not the solution.

A girl walking to school in North Korea near the South Korean border. The Biden administration renewed a Trump-era ban on Americans traveling to North Korea, preventing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations. (Roman Harak / Flickr)

The Biden administration claiming to center human rights in U.S. foreign policy while simultaneously banning Americans from traveling to North Korea is like advocating for abstinence-only sexual education to prevent pregnancy: Both only exacerbate the issues they are supposedly trying to solve. In reality, the travel ban to North Korea undermines human rights by preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching vulnerable populations, keeping families separated, and acting as another roadblock to diplomacy.

This September, the Biden administration renewed a Trump-era ban on Americans traveling to North Korea. The State Department’s stated reason for extending the travel ban was the “serious risk to U.S. citizens and nationals of arrest.” While originally implemented after the detention and eventual death of an American college student, the ban hurts U.S. engagement with North Korea and harms the people of North Korea in need of food assistance. 

In a press conference regarding the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said on August 31, “Human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.” If human rights are really the goal of U.S. foreign policy, banning travel to North Korea is not the solution. Just like the way to ensure safe sexual activity is comprehensive sexual education and access to safe abortion services and other reproductive health options and not abstinence-only education and abortion bans (looking at you, Texas), the U.S. is undermining human rights by extending the travel ban to North Korea. Both assaults on reproductive rights and the travel ban are simply smokescreens—abortion bans as tools to control the bodies of pregnant people and and the travel ban as a tool for the United States’ continued militarism.

On the contrary, the ban freezes the work many are doing to improve the situation on the ground in North Korea, and, like abstinence-only sexual education, ignores real solutions that have been proven to work. The ban prevents many non-governmental organizations from providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations in North Korea and engaging in people-to-people exchanges to ease tensions.

Prior to the 2017 ban, Americans participated in exchanges like the historic crossing of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North Korea from South Korea. Other actions like the 2008 visit by the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang and the reunions of long-separated families have been hindered or haltered by this policy. 

Under the current policy, it is near impossible to obtain exceptions to the ban. When North Korea opens its borders after the pandemic is under control, U.S. citizens who wish to travel to North Korea should not have the added barrier of the 2017 ban that prevents them from traveling there. Especially for humanitarian groups and divided families, timing is of the essence. The ban will continue to delay life-saving urgent humanitarian assistance, as humanitarian groups will need to move fast post-pandemic to provide aid. For aging Korean Americans hoping to see their loved ones, time is running out.

On top of lifesaving humanitarian assistance as a key part of human rights, the United States should also be working to improve relations with North Korea through human interaction between the people of North Korea and the United States. People-to-people interactions pave the way toward understanding of mutual humanity, and are key tenets of peacebuilding efforts.

As Christine Ahn, executive director of Women Cross DMZ, said in response to the renewal of the ban,

“One of the most unfortunate consequences of the travel ban to North Korea is that civil society peacebuilding efforts have come to a halt. Had the travel ban been in effect in 2015, our historic crossing of the Demilitarized Zone and meetings with North Korean women wouldn’t have been possible. These activities are crucial to breaking down barriers, building trust, and promoting understanding.” 

As a recent report from Korea Peace Now outlines, human rights and peace are closely connected. Instead of continuing with the decades-old failed strategy of militaristic threats, sanctions and a state of endless war, the Biden administration should address the root cause of the security tensions on the Korean Peninsula and pursue a formal end to the Korean War by negotiating a peace treaty. The unresolved war has had a negative impact on human rights in all countries involved, diverting resources toward militarism away from human needs. This peace-first approach would begin to improve the lives of those affected and create the conditions to engage more authentically on human rights. 

I applaud President Biden’s stated commitment to human rights at home and abroad, from his statement condemning the Supreme Court’s assault on reproductive rights in Texas to his assurance that human rights will be centered in our foreign policy. However, we have not seen human rights centered in the Biden administration’s policy toward North Korea thus far.

If President Biden truly wishes to center human rights in foreign and domestic policy, he will reverse the travel ban to North Korea and work for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

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Colleen Moore is the advocacy coordinator for Women Cross DMZ and Korea Peace Now, which mobilizes women globally for peace in Korea and women's inclusion in the peace process. You can follow her on Twitter here.