Traveling To North Korea? Then You Should Be On Your Own

Keith Naughton Public Affairs Consultant
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I have sympathy for Kenneth Bae. Held in captivity by a brutal police state run by paranoid primitives, I am glad he is safely back in the United States. I have less sympathy for callow millennial Matthew Miller who reportedly engaged in provocations in order to remain in North Korea as a defector, later changing his mind and deciding to leave. Spending time in a Pyongyang jail cell is apparently quite the reality check.

This latest incident begs the question, isn’t it time we stopped rescuing our foolish fellow citizens from places like North Korea?

There are places in this world where Americans are a target. Places where the powers that be seize Americans for use as vehicles for propaganda, as diplomatic bargaining chips, or simply as some demented punishment for imagined crimes by the U.S. government. Any American traveling to these places is in danger just for being an American citizen. North Korea, Iran, and ISIS territory easily spring to mind.

Yet, every now and again an American or two decides to ignore the political facts on the ground and go to these places anyway. Our government dutifully exerts diplomatic pressure, negotiates and, in the case of freelance journalist James Foley, has sent in military special forces to attempt a rescue.

Fortunately, the U.S. government does not pay ransom (although there may be exceptions).

Unfortunately, European governments and families do. Such ransom payments just fuel more kidnappings and terrorism. When a grieving family rustles up the cash to save their naïve, irresponsible child, they become complicit in every future kidnapping. That is simply unacceptable.

These efforts should stop.

There are two justifications for this seemingly harsh stance. The first is that U.S. government needs to remove the value of Americans as hostages. Only when foreign enemies understand that taking hostages involves costs with no benefits will their criminal behavior be curbed. An unbending policy today will save tomorrow’s potential hostages.

The second justification is that the responsibilities of our diplomats and military special forces simply should not include rescuing naïve, self-indulgent travelers. Situations inevitably arise where individuals and groups take precautions but are overwhelmed by a calculated, organized plot. American citizens can also be abducted in seemingly safe locales. In these situations, where the victims have taken reasonable precautions, the use of diplomatic pressure and/or a military response is perfectly justified.

In addition to its customary travel warnings, the U.S. State Department needs to make a narrow explicit list of nations where travel by Americans is prohibited. Any American traveling to such places, like North Korea, is on their own. No efforts will be made to extricate them regardless of circumstance.

To be sure, such warnings should not be made as a blurb on the State Department website. The federal government should make it clear through multiple channels, including via direct communication with tour agencies what places are on the prohibition list.  Traveling to locales like North Korea is not a matter of cruising Expedia, it involves some effort. Tour agencies that arrange visits to North Korea and Iran should be required to inform American citizens that they can expect no assistance from the American government should they run into trouble.

The bottom line is that you just can’t save people from themselves. Let’s stop making the futile effort to do so.