It’s been a year since the Trump administration banned Americans—including most humanitarian workers—from North Korea, following the death of Otto Warmbier, an American university student whose imprisonment left him in a vegetative state. Last month, the administration renewed the ban for a second year. Since its implementation, the State Department has granted a special travel passport only in “extremely limited circumstances.”
While containing Pyongyang’s military ambitions, taking a normative stand against human rights violations, and protecting Americans abroad are commendable policy objectives, the travel ban limits humanitarian and economic projects that connect North Koreans with the outside world. Particularly impacted are nearly 70 faith-based organizations (FBOs), most of them Christian, which during the past two decades have legally channeled hundreds of (mostly volunteer) workers and thousands of tourists to North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). They originate from the United States (e.g., Christian Friends of Korea), Canada (Reah International), Finland (Fida International), Germany (Christliches Missionswerk Joshua), and South Korea (Eugene Bell Foundation Korea, Green Tree International), among other countries. As a Korean American political science professor, I (Yi) interviewed more than 20 workers and tourists, mostly US citizens, linked with faith-based organizations.
The FBO workers and volunteers, whom I interviewed, acknowledge the complications of international tourism to the DPRK and urge would-be tourists to exercise prudence and follow applicable laws. At the same time, they also highlight many positive developments in North Korea—a country of more than 25 million people—that are directly related to tourism and humanitarian work.
I met Gabe Segoine, who has completed 19 trips into North Korea since 2007 both as the founder of Love North Korea Ministries, which drills wells in villages to access clean water, and as a tour group leader. I also met Wondong Lee, who cannot legally visit North Korea as a South Korean citizen, but as a member of Reah International, he actively volunteers his time and money to support the FBO-linked workers and tourists who can.
Since foreigners cannot visit North Korea on their own terms, tours take place under controlled circumstances. Tour guides, like Segoine, keep tourists from wandering off the beaten path and are often on a preset, strict itinerary. The good news is tourists are given more latitude every year, and North Korea is in the process of opening their doors.
When visiting, tourists only get to see pieces of the entire picture. This picture is constantly changing. Foreign tourists might not be able to connect with every North Korean they see, but they connect with many. Foreigners and locals get a glimpse into each other’s lives. Every tourist visit and interaction helps the country to further open to the outside world.
Visitors today also do a surprising amount of direct engagement through sports culture exchanges. In 2014, Segoine (through Surfing the Nations) headed a project that officially introduced surfing to the country. Until the 2017 travel ban, Segoine led annual exchange trips, where people from many countries—including British vlogger Louis John Cole—engaged everyday locals with surfing, skateboarding, and skiing/snowboarding, among other activities.
“This kind of engagement absolutely and positively impacts how North Koreans relate to foreigners,” Segoine said. “Every wave, every smile, every handshake, every kid we get on a surfboard or skateboard, every person we get on skis or a snowboard, every conversation, every high-five is beneficial in breaking down barriers which exist between North Korea and the rest of the world.”
According to my research, FBO workers report that the government even allows Christian tour groups, who are honest about their faith and who follow regime rules and local customs. Official government guides often appreciate Christian tourists, one middle-aged tourist told me:
Our [official] guide knew that we were all believers as this information was given to them on our application form. Hence we were asked to say grace before each meal. We were allowed to bring our own Bible, as long as it was not in Korean and that we would bring it with us when we leave. We were able to have a group devotion, worship and prayer time each morning, which we hope was a blessing to those who listened in. This was part of the agreement between the two tourist agencies [an FBO and Korea International Travel Company]. It warms our hearts to hear from the guide’s own mouth praises for Christian tourists. They told us that they especially disliked those tourists who were rude, smoked non-stop, drank heavily, and [were] always complaining about their culture and food. They would rather look after Christian groups like ours as we were kind to them; we did not complain but showed sincere appreciation. It is our prayer that our life before them over our short visit would show them the fragrance of our Lord Jesus Christ and changed their preconceived ideas about Christians.
The travel ban and other sanctions hinder this kind of person-to-person engagement. At the same time, President Donald Trump has been the only US president to personally meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, raising hopes for a breakthrough. The tough question for humanitarian NGOs and FBOs is to figure out how to move forward in the midst of all this uncertainty. They remain hopeful about peace in Korea but are aware that things can all fall apart just as easily.
Meanwhile, FBO workers and volunteers continue the work that they feel called to do. On August 6, 2018, the UN issued a new exemption option for NGOs to work inside North Korea, for which Love North Korea Ministries will apply along with a special US Treasury Department license. Both require a lot of work and costly legal assistance. FBO workers hope that political leaders would negotiate in good faith to move forward, so they can get back to work. If this happens, all parties can benefit from their experience on the ground, as well as their proven ability to build bridges wherever needed.
On October 25, Wondong Lee and other members of Reah International will host a round-the-clock, virtual prayer wall for peace (Ezek. 22:30), in which people from various nations will pray 30 minutes each week at their given time until the end of 2018. Lee will personally pray for the leaders of the UN and the “six-party” countries (two Koreas, US, Japan, China, Russia) to achieve a durable peace and to promote what the UN Preamble declares “the dignity and worth” of every individual. In the end, said Lee, all the difficulties will be worth it if we help accomplish our Father’s desire for reconciliation.
Joseph Yi is associate professor of political science at Hanyang University and the author (with Joseph Phillips) of “Christian Case for Engaging North Korea” (Pacific Affairs, 2018).
Wondong Lee is a PhD student in political science at the University of California, Irvine, and affiliated with the UCI Center for Critical Korean Studies.