US ban on travel to North Korea takes effect, tourists bid it farewell

The US last month announced a ban on US passport holders from traveling to North Korea. Source: LMspencer/Shutterstock

A US State Department ban on travel to North Korea took effect on Friday as the last few American tourists in the isolated country bid their goodbyes, Reuters reported.

Tourist Nicholas Burkhead, 35, said he’d be happy to return to his latest holiday destination, with its “beautiful scenery, great food and friendly people”.

Burkhead, from Virginia, was among the last American tourists to leave North Korea, landing on Thursday in Beijing.

“I was surprised at how friendly everyone was,” Burkhead said after stepping off the last scheduled flight to Beijing from the North Korean capital Pyongyang, before the US travel ban kicks in.

“It was very relaxing – beautiful scenery and they fed us very well in the restaurants there, but the exchange rate wasn’t too good for the local won,” he told reporters.

Burkhead arrived in Beijing on North Korea‘s state-owned Air Koryo after visiting Pyongyang as well as the city of Kaesong near the heavily armed border with South Korea. His five-day tour cost €1,850 (US$2,200).

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Other Americans on the flight included two aid workers as well as Jamie Banfill, 32, who had led tours to North Korea but was visiting this time as a tourist.

Banfill, who had made the trip to say goodbyes after regularly traveling to the North for a decade, said the travel ban was short-sighted.

“It’s an extremely complex situation on the Korean peninsula and they oversimplified it.”

The US last month announced a ban on US passport holders from traveling to North Korea, effective Sept 1. Journalists and humanitarian workers are allowed to apply for exemptions under the ban, which is similar to previous US restrictions on travel to Iraq and Libya.

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Christian Friends of Korea director Heidi Linton, who has been working in North Korea for more than 20 years, told reporters she worried about the people her aid group helped, if her exemption was not granted soon.

“We started a hepatitis B programme and we have 705 patients that have been started on life-saving medicine, that if they go off that medicine then their lives are in danger,” she said.

It was not immediately clear how many Americans had sought, or been granted, exemptions or how many were still in North Korea. An official at the state department said it was not able to give an estimate on the number of US citizens there.

North Korea is under growing international pressure over its nuclear tests and repeated ballistic missile launches, including one this week that flew over northern Japan.

The US ban on travel to North Korea followed the death of US college student Otto Warmbier, who was jailed during a tour last year.

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Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for trying to steal a propaganda sign, was returned to the US in a coma in June and died six days later. The circumstances surrounding his death are not clear, including why he fell into a coma.

Warmbier had been detained leaving the airport in Pyongyang.

Hundreds of Americans are among the 4,000 to 5,000 Western tourists who visit North Korea annually, according to US lawmaker Joe Wilson.

Additional reporting by Reuters