HONG KONG — President Trump's extension of his travel ban to North Korea is mostly symbolic and will have little to no effect on Kim Jong Un's regime, experts said Monday.
Trump on Sunday issued an executive order indefinitely banning travel to the United States by citizens of seven countries and the ruling class of an eighth. The list includes all but one of the countries covered by the original ban plus three more: Chad, Venezuela and North Korea. The restrictions on Venezuela apply to that country's leaders and their families.
While the entire order is sure to be controversial, the timing of the North Korea addition is particularly sensitive because it comes amid a protracted standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Successive rounds of U.N. sanctions have done little to curb missile and nuclear tests, with the Kim regime pushing ahead and threatening, repeatedly, to target the United States.
In recent days, the situation has devolved into name-calling. Trump has tweeted vague threats to "Rocket Man" Kim, and the North Korean dictator has fired back at "dotard" Trump.
In the context of this escalating conflict, the North Korea travel ban may appear to be part of a U.S. push to isolate the regime. But experts said the provisions are unlikely to do so — or, in fact, accomplish anything concrete at all.
Trump pitched the new order as a measure designed to keep Americans safe. "Making America Safe is my number one priority. We will not admit those into our country we cannot safely vet," he tweeted.
The problem with punishing Pyongyang by stopping North Koreans from traveling to the United States is that very few — almost none — make the trip.
The new executive order suspends “immigrant and nonimmigrant” travel from North Korea to the United States. But people cannot emigrate from North Korea to the United States to begin with.
“They should have checked if there is North Korean immigration before they banned it,” said John Delury, an associate professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “Why are you banning something that doesn’t exist?”
North Korean defectors who end up in the United States usually arrive via South Korea and are typically traveling on South Korean, not North Korean, passports.
Although North Korean diplomats do travel to the United States, mostly to United Nations headquarters in New York, the order notes that diplomatic visits are exempt from the ban.
That leaves only the handful of officials or academics who attend conferences in the United States each year, a group that is already closely vetted by the State Department.
Given all this, Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University of China in Beijing, predicted that the impact of the ban on North Korea would be “very limited.”
Lu Chao, a Korea specialist at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang, China, said there would be no practical impact at all. “It’s propaganda,” he said.
Yet, if this is a message, nobody seems certain what message Trump is trying send — or to whom.
Delury said the move may be aimed at a domestic audience, not an international one. The original travel ban was widely criticized for targeting Muslims — adding North Korea and Venezuela changes the conversation.
“There’s no logic in the North Korea context, so we can conclude this is not really about North Korea,” Delury said. “This is not part of real North Korea policy at all.”
Amber Ziye Wang and Shirley Feng in Beijing contributed to this report.