Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker says Congress should consider legislation making it illegal for Americans to travel to North Korea, a day after the death of a U.S. college student who had been imprisoned there.
“It’s something we should seriously look at, because it affects our national security,” the Tennessee Republican said in an interview Tuesday. “It puts us in a very precarious situation. We have three Americans there now. We’re constantly having to get people out of the country.”
Corker’s Foreign Relations gavel gives him major sway over legislation dealing with U.S. travel abroad, and his remarks mean Congress is likely to at least explore the issue. The State Department is also looking at imposing new restrictions on U.S. travel to North Korea, which does not have diplomatic relations with the United States.
“We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction on North Korea,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a House hearing last week. “We have not come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland, said he was open to the idea of a legal prohibition on travel. “I am sympathetic to taking steps that would protect Americans,” he said Tuesday. “Clearly we cannot assure the safety of Americans when we see what happened to that student.”
Cardin added that he planned to talk to his staff about the legal implications of making it illegal to travel to North Korea. “What does it do about humanitarian aid?” he asked. “What does it do about some of the other issues? I’d like to know a little bit more about that.”
In the House, Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are already pushing a bill, the North Korea Travel Control Act, which would bar U.S. citizens from going to North Korea for tourism.
“The North Korean regime has shown once again that it is perfectly willing to treat Americans who visit their nation as hostages to extract concessions from the United States, and to put their lives in danger,” Schiff said in a statement Tuesday.
The State Department now advises Americans against traveling to North Korea, but such travel is not prohibited.
U.S. citizens who travel there “are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” says a warning on the State Department’s website. “This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States.”
Three Americans are currently being held by the Kim Jong Un regime, which often tries to use U.S. prisoners as leverage to extract concessions.
Otto Warmbier, a college student who was detained in North Korea in January 2016, was returned to the United States this month in a coma. He died on Monday.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday he was not ready to back a legal prohibition on travel to North Korea, and that he first believed the U.S. government should warn Americans it was not responsible for their safety if they choose to go there.
“I think first we need to warn Americans that they should not go and that their lives are endangered if they go,” McCain said.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.