US weighs travel ban on North Korea after Otto Warmbier death

EMBED </>More Videos

An American college student who was released by North Korea in a coma has died in Ohio. Otto Warmbier was 22. (WLS)

The Trump administration is considering banning travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea, officials said Tuesday, as outrage grew over the death of American student Otto Warmbier and President Donald Trump declared it a "total disgrace."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has the authority to cut off travel to North Korea with the stroke of the pen, has been weighing such a move since late April, when American teacher Tony Kim was detained in Pyongyang, a senior State Department official said. No ban is imminent, but deliberations gained new urgency after Warmbier's death, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal diplomatic discussions.

Even as Warmbier's family prepared to mourn him at a public funeral service Thursday in Ohio, the circumstances behind his death remained unclear. The coroner's office in Hamilton County, Ohio, said it had accepted Warmbier's case but had only performed an external examination on his body because the family had objected to an autopsy.

Warmbier, 22, was released last week by North Korea in a coma, but died days later, his family said. The former University of Virginia student had been visiting North Korea on a tour group when he was detained, sentenced to 15 years hard labor for subversion, and held for more than 17 months.

"It's a total disgrace what happened to Otto. That should never ever be allowed to happen," Trump said in the Oval Office.

Suggesting former President Barack Obama bears some blame, Trump said "the result would have been a lot different" had Warmbier been brought home sooner. Obama's office had no reaction, but his former aides have said he worked tirelessly to try to get Warmbier and other Americans released from North Korea.

From the White House to Capitol Hill, pressure mounted for a tough U.S. response, even as U.S. diplomats sought to protect others Americans from facing a similar fate. Three other U.S. citizens, including Kim, are still being held in North Korea.

Barring Americans from stepping foot in North Korea would mark the latest U.S. step to isolate the furtive, nuclear-armed nation, and protect U.S. citizens who may be allured by the prospect of traveling there. Nearly all Americans who have gone to North Korea have left without incident. But some have been seized and given draconian sentences for seemingly minor offenses.

The U.S. government strongly warns Americans against traveling to North Korea, but doesn't prohibit it, despite other sanctions targeting the country. It's unclear exactly how many Americans go to North Korea every year. Those who typically do travel from China, where tour groups market trips to adventure-seekers.

Some of those companies - including China-based Young Pioneer Tours, which took Warmbier to Pyongyang - have now stopped taking Americans. Other travel companies say they're considering a similar restriction.

The U.S. and North Korea have no diplomatic relations. The U.S. has been pressing Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons development and urging China and other countries to starve the North of funding for the program. But on Tuesday, Trump suggested that strategy had failed.

"While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out," Trump wrote on Twitter. "At least I know China tried!"

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans found rare bipartisan consensus in denouncing the North. Several senators said they were considering a travel ban. In the House, lawmakers lined up behind legislation from Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat, and Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican.

Under their proposal, the Treasury Department would be ordered to prohibit all financial transactions related to travel to North Korea by Americans, unless specifically authorized by a U.S. license. No licenses would be issued for tourism.

The Trump administration doesn't need an act of Congress to bar Americans from traveling to North Korea.

Under existing law, all it would take is a designation by Tillerson - called a "geographic travel restriction" - to make all American passports invalid for travel to North Korea. To back up the designation, Tillerson could assert that Americans face "imminent danger" to their health or safety if they travel there, an easily defendable assertion in the wake of Warmbier's death.

The U.S. doesn't currently prohibit its passports from being used to travel to any countries, even though financial restrictions limit U.S. travel to Cuba and elsewhere. If a passport ban were placed on North Korea, an American who violated it could face a fine and up to 10 years in prison for a first offense.

Schiff said a new law was important to show Congress' unity on North Korea, arguing that financial measures through the Treasury Department might be more effective than a passport ban because it would deter travel companies ferrying Americans.

"This has the merits of protecting Americans from going to a place of increasing danger, but also drying up one source of our currency for North Korea," Schiff said in an interview.

Short of a total ban, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., proposed that prospective American travelers complete a form declaring they won't hold the U.S. government responsible for what happens. He said the form would require Americans to affirm they're aware of what's transpired to other U.S. citizens, such as Warmbier, whom the senator said was "murdered" by the North.

"If people are that stupid that they still want to go to that country, then at least they assume the responsibility for their welfare," McCain said.

CORONER INVESTIGATING WARMBIER'S DEATH

A coroner's office in Ohio is investigating the death of a 22-year-old college student who died shortly after his return to the U.S. after nearly a year and a half in North Korean detention, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The spokesman for Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammaraco said the office "accepted the case" of Otto Warmbier, who died Monday in a Cincinnati hospital. Justin Weber told The Associated Press that a news conference is expected later to provide more information.

Wambier's parents did not cite a specific cause of death, but cited "awful, torturous mistreatment" by North Korea. Doctors had described Warmbier's condition as a state of "unresponsive wakefulness" and said he suffered a "severe neurological injury" of unknown cause

He arrived in Ohio on June 13 after being held for more than 17 months.

North Korea must bear "heavy responsibility" for Warmbier's death, said South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

He said in an interview on "CBS This Morning" broadcast Tuesday that while it's not known for sure what happened, there can be speculation that North Korea made "unjust and cruel treatments" to Warmbier.

Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group and was convicted of subversion. He was put before North Korean officials and journalists for a televised "confession."

"I have made the worst mistake of my life!" he exclaimed, choking up as he begged to be allowed to reunite with his parents and two younger siblings.

He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years in prison with hard labor. His family said it was told he had been in a coma since soon after his sentencing.

Doctors said he suffered extensive loss of brain tissue and "profound weakness and contraction" of his muscles, arms and legs. His eyes opened and blinked but without any sign that he understood verbal commands or his surroundings.

Unresponsive wakefulness is a new medical term for persistent vegetative state. Patients in this condition can open their eyes but do not respond to commands. People can live in a state of unresponsive wakefulness for many years with the chances of recovery depending on the extent of the brain injury.

North Korea said Warmbier went into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. Doctors in Cincinnati said they found no active sign of botulism or evidence of beatings.

In a White House statement, President Donald Trump said, "A lot of bad things happened, but at least we got him home to be with his parents." He called North Korea a "brutal regime."

Warmbier grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming. He was salutatorian of his high school class and was on the soccer team.

Wyoming City Schools released a statement saying it was "deeply saddened" by his death.

"The countless contributions he made to his school and community through his leadership, actions, and limitless enthusiasm will be felt far into the future," the school district said.

Warmbier had planned to study in China in his third year of college and heard about Chinese travel companies offering trips to North Korea. He was leaving North Korea on Jan. 2, 2016, when he was detained at the airport.

The organizers of Warmbier's trip say they will no longer take U.S. citizens to the country. Young Pioneer Tours said Tuesday on Facebook that his death shows that the risk American tourists face in visiting North Korea "has become too high."

The U.S. Department of State warns against travel to North Korea. While nearly all Americans who have been there have left without incident, visitors can be seized and face lengthy incarceration for what might seem like minor infractions.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John McCain said that Americans who are "stupid" enough to still want to visit North Korea should be required to sign a waiver absolving the U.S. government of any blame if they're harmed while there.

Three Americans remain held in North Korea. The U.S. government accuses North Korea of using such detainees as political pawns. North Korea accuses Washington and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.

Related Topics:
newsu.s. & worldnorth koreaOhioVirginia
(Copyright ©2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Load Comments