S. Koreans who visit N. Korea to be excluded from visa-free entry to US through ESTA

Posted on : 2019-08-07 17:02 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Public servants visiting on official business exempt from new restriction
The place at the US Embassy in Seoul where South Koreans apply for visas to the US. (Yonhap News)
The place at the US Embassy in Seoul where South Koreans apply for visas to the US. (Yonhap News)

South Koreans and other non-Americans who have visited or resided in North Korea since Mar. 1, 2011, will no longer be able to enter the US without a visa.

On Aug. 6, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) relayed the news that, as of Aug. 5, the US is restricting visa-free entry under the Electronics System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) for individuals with a record of visiting or staying in North Korea.

ESTA is a program that allows the citizens of 38 countries that have enrolled in the visa-waiver program, including South Korea, to visit the US for up to 90 days for the purpose of tourism or commerce.

This measure means that South Koreans who have visited sites in North Korea, including the Kaesong Industrial Complex, over the past eight years will have to go to the inconvenience of applying for a visa before visiting the US. However, public servants who have gone to North Korea on official business will still be allowed to visit the US on ESTA if they can provide documentary proof of their status.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has allowed around 37,000 individuals to visit North Korea between Mar. 1, 2011, and July 31, 2019, but the actual number of South Korean nationals who will be subject to the restrictions is expected to be smaller.

“There are some people who were granted permission but didn’t actually enter North Korea, and the US government has created an exception for official business by public servants. Thus, it would appear that fewer than 37,000 Koreans will actually be affected by the measure,” an official from the Unification Ministry said.

These restrictions will also apply to the members of a special delegation from South Korea’s business community who visited Pyongyang at the time of the inter-Korean summit in September 2018, including Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, and LG Group Chairman Koo Kwang-mo.

“Having been in North Korea doesn’t mean you’re banned from visiting the US, and entry is still possible after being issued a tourist or business visa,” explained a MOFA official. The US describes this as a technical and administrative measure based on domestic counterterrorism legislation and added that the measure applies not only to South Korea, but to all 37 states that are members of the visa-waiver program. The US reportedly informed South Korea of its plan to impose the restriction about a month ago.

Since 2016, the US government has been excluding those who have visited state sponsors of terrorism and other designated countries from the benefits of the visa-waiver program, in accordance with the US’ Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. Previously, those who had visited or resided in seven countries — namely, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia — since March 2011 had been unable to receive an ESTA visa; the latest measure adds North Korea to that list.

While North Korea had been removed from the US’ list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008, the designation was reinstated in November 2017 after the Otto Warmbier incident. Warmbier, an American college student, had been detained in North Korea and died shortly after his repatriation to the US.

US has yet to ask for record of S. Koreans who have visited N. Korea

While it’s unclear by what means the US will ascertain whether individuals have been to North Korea, considering that such visits aren’t recorded in passports, the South Korean government believes the US will rely on a voluntary reporting system. “Our understanding is that the Americans will be using the honor system,” Kim In-chul said during the regular press briefing on Tuesday.

When asked whether Seoul had provided the US with a list of people who had visited North Korea, an official with the Unification Ministry said that, at least for now, Seoul hadn’t been asked to do so by the US.

By Park Min-hee, staff reporter, and Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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