Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea as a "private citizen." Can I?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 5 2009 6:21 PM

Dear Trip Leader

Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea as a "private citizen." Can I?

Former President Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Click image to expand.
Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-il

Former President Bill Clinton returned to the United States from North Korea on Wednesday after securing the release of two American journalists. Clinton made a point of traveling as a "private citizen," flying there on a political donor's plane without any government officials. If Bill Clinton can visit North Korea, does that mean I can, too?

Yes. If you're feeling adventurous and wish to visit beautiful Pyongyang, the U.S. State Department recommends getting a visa through North Korea's U.N. representative. But it's far easier to travel with an approved tour company, like Asia Pacific Travel (the only American company officially sanctioned by the North Korean government) or the British company Koryo Tours. (If you don't go with a tour company, you'll need to find an organization—a university, say—that's willing to host you.) All you need to do is submit a copy of your passport, two photos, and a North Korea visa form. The tour company then passes these materials along to the Korea International Travel Company—the government agency tasked with reviewing applications. (The process takes about a month.) You can be barred for any reason, but the only explicit deal-breaker is listing "journalist" as your profession. Even if approved, you can stay only five days during the period coinciding with the country's annual Arirang Festival, or "mass games," which this year is being held in August and September. Non-American Westerners can travel to North Korea year-round and can usually stay up to 10 days, but otherwise the same rules apply.

Travelers to North Korea can expect constant oversight. Upon arriving at the airport, you're met by an official government tour guide, who stays with you for the duration of the trip. Customs officials can confiscate anything they consider pornographic as well as religious materials that could be used for proselytizing locals. You have to leave your cell phone at the airport, and the guide holds onto your passport. From there, you're taken directly to your hotel—usually either the Koryo or the Potanggang, known for being the only hotel in North Korea that gets CNN. Tours are highly regimented and tend to cover the same circuit of tourist attractions, from Juche Tower, which commemorates the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, to the Korean Central History Museum, which presents a rather unconventional history of the country, to museums that house all the gifts given to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il by foreign dignitaries over the years. Trips during Arirang include viewings of elaborate Beijing Olympics-style presentations that include music, dancing, and the games' famous "card stunts." (See photos here.)

Advertisement

Wandering off on your own is strictly forbidden. Same goes for talking to North Koreans. If you do try to speak to locals, they're supposed to report you to the authorities. If they don't, someone else may report them. Travelers are discouraged from being openly critical of the government. And if you take photos, especially of military buildings or personnel, your camera or film may be confiscated. There's no American Embassy to turn to in case of emergency, but the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang provides basic consular services for U.S. citizens.

Bonus Explainer: The Logan Act, passed in 1799 and updated in 1994, forbids anyone from negotiating with foreign nations on behalf of the U.S. government without "the authority of the United States." Did President Clinton break the law? Doubtful. For one thing, Clinton was not doing any actual negotiating. Whatever deals were made to allow the transfer of the two journalists occurred long before Clinton touched down in Pyongyang. Clinton's role was merely to retrieve them. And while Clinton claimed to be traveling as an independent citizen, he did so at the request of the White House. Whether that amounts to the "authority of the United States"—or whether congressional approval would also be necessary—is not addressed in the bill's language.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mike Chinoy, author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, Winnie Lu of Asia Pacific Travel, and Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.