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Is it illegal for US citizens to travel to North Korea?

It may currently be impossible and probably a very bad idea, but is it actually illegal?

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    Illegal from the US side but not from the North Korean side (at least before the pandemic when borders were closed to all tourists and travelers).
    – user45238
    Jul 18, 2023 at 7:36
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    Not an answer since he's not a US citizen, but back in 2015, a Kenyan man accidentally flew to North Korea (via Beijing, China). He was fined 500 USD for entering the country without a visa, but ultimately allowed to go back to Beijing and get on his intended flight to South Korea.
    – dan04
    Jul 18, 2023 at 18:47
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    @dan04 It's is easy to understand: he confused the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with the Republic of Korea. Jul 19, 2023 at 2:48
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    Do we really need to hyperlink to the Wikipedia page on the US? Are there people on English-language sites that don't know what the US is? Jul 19, 2023 at 3:16
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    @AzorAhai-him- I assume the link was probably added to make the edit substantial enough to be submitted (minimum character requirement). The part of the edit that was needed was changing "us" to "US" Jul 19, 2023 at 7:29

1 Answer 1

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Short Answer

Is it illegal for US citizens to travel to North Korea?

Yes (but see the "fine print" below).

Long Answer

There is:

a US travel ban to North Korea for American citizens, as of July 2017.

Now, Americans wishing to travel to North Korea must obtain a Special Validation Passport from the US Department of State, only issued under very specific circumstances, such as for journalists covering the region or for humanitarian aid workers.

The Biden administration extended the ban, initially established by the Trump administration, on traveling to North Korea on a U.S. passport absent special approval:

The ban makes it illegal to use a U.S. passport for travel to, from or through North Korea, also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or the DPRK, unless the document has been specially validated. Such validations are granted by the State Department only in the case of compelling national interest.

The U.S. State Department confirms that this ban is still in place. It states that:

Travel to, in, or through North Korea on a U.S. passport without this special validation may justify revocation of your passport for misuse under 22 C.F.R. § 51.62(a)(3) and may subject you to felony prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1544 or other applicable laws.

The maximum criminal penalty if you use a U.S. passport to go to North Korea and then return and a charged with a crime under 18 U.S.C. § 1544 are quite serious. You could be sent to prison for up to ten years for a first or second offense, or up to fifteen years if you have two prior convictions under this statute, and/or fined, even if you weren't a terrorist or drug dealer, although the actual sentence would probably be milder, if you were charged with a crime at all.

The criminal statute reads as follows (with the pertinent parts in bold):

Whoever willfully and knowingly uses, or attempts to use, any passport issued or designed for the use of another; or

Whoever willfully and knowingly uses or attempts to use any passport in violation of the conditions or restrictions therein contained, or of the rules prescribed pursuant to the laws regulating the issuance of passports; or

Whoever willfully and knowingly furnishes, disposes of, or delivers a passport to any person, for use by another than the person for whose use it was originally issued and designed—

Shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 25 years (if the offense was committed to facilitate an act of international terrorism (as defined in section 2331 of this title)), 20 years (if the offense was committed to facilitate a drug trafficking crime (as defined in section 929(a) of this title)), 10 years (in the case of the first or second such offense, if the offense was not committed to facilitate such an act of international terrorism or a drug trafficking crime), or 15 years (in the case of any other offense), or both.

There are also many other North Korean sanctions (and keep in mind that North Korea is legally an "enemy" of the United States with which the U.S. is officially still at war and does not have diplomatic relations). The most recent of those, from 2017, prohibits ships and aircraft owned by a "foreign person" which have been in North Korean in the last 180 days from entering the United States.

The ban does not prohibit a dual citizen from traveling to North Korea on a passport from the person's other country of citizenship, nor does it prohibit U.S. citizens from entering North Korea without using a passport (although entering North Korea without a passport or visa probably violates North Korean law).

Of course, North Korea also regulates entry of people into North Korea under North Korean immigration laws. I do not know whether or not it is legal under North Korean law for people to enter it with a U.S. passport. But, given that the only U.S. citizen to enter North Korea without a special U.S. visa authorizing the trip in the last seven years was arrested immediately after crossing into North Korea this week, it would appear that this is illegal under North Korean law as well.

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    "a US travel ban to North Korea for American citizens" That is not supported by any official source. The ban actually bans the use of a US passport to travel to North Korea. If a US citizen uses a non-US passport or non-passport travel document to travel to North Korea, I am not aware of any regulation against that.
    – user102008
    Jul 18, 2023 at 14:50
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    @user102008 The short answer slightly oversimplifies which is clarified later in the answer.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:17
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    @Barmar Air Koryo flies between Beijing and Pyongyang. The question boils down to how to get in Beijing (rarely an issue) and how you convince an official or the crew to let you on board. One way to do that, is get invited. And NK definitely invites people all the time. Source: been there (Pyongyang) with US citizens before the ban of '17.
    – Mast
    Jul 18, 2023 at 16:45
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    "given that the only U.S. citizen to enter North Korea without a special U.S. visa [...] was arrested immediately [...] it would appear that this is illegal under North Korean law as well" - That's not my reading of the BBC story. It looks to me like he ran into NK from the DMZ without going through border control at all (and saying "ha ha ha"), so of course they would arrest him.
    – benrg
    Jul 18, 2023 at 16:56
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    @Indigenuity The authorization for the use of force in the Korean War has never been rescinded. Actually calling it a "Declaration of War" is unimportant. "Enemy status" authorizes actions under war powers that would otherwise not be allowed.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 18, 2023 at 19:31

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