On May 29, 2015, the United States removed Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. This means that the White House only officially recognizes three countries as terror sponsors: Iran, Syria and Sudan. While cases can be made to include conflict-ridden states like Libya and Yemen, or US strategic partners like Saudi Arabia or Qatar to the list, one absence is especially conspicuous: North Korea.
North Korea has been off the terror list since 2008, when the DPRK agreed to disclose information about its nuclear weapons inventory. However, the decision to remove North Korea was more reflective of the obsolete nature of Washington’s terrorism blacklist than a genuine improvement in North Korea’s conduct.
The terror blacklist, devised in 1979, is vague on how to handle acts of cyber-terrorism like the North Korean Sony hack of late 2014, and overemphasizes direct forms of terror sponsorship like training of insurgents. It also inadequately considers the implications of WMD technology assistance to terror sponsoring states or the obstruction of US counter-terrorism operations, which can be as harmful to US national security as providing direct assistance to terror groups.
North Korea has therefore been able to remain off the terror list by exploiting these loopholes and paying lip-service compliance to enough of the blacklist’s terms to undermine the case for additional sanctions. In view of this, I will present my case for why I believe North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism and why opponents of its inclusion on the terror list are basing their position on misplaced assumptions.
An Overview of North Korea’s Alliances with Terrorist Groups and State Sponsors of Terror
First of all, the Bush administration’s decision to remove North Korea from the terrorism list was based on pledges that were not credible. Pyongyang’s promises to comply with US efforts to verify its nuclear program were reneged on by the shock May 25, 2009 nuclear test. North Korea also continued its illicit arms trade, which has supplied terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. There is strong evidence that North Korea assisted Hamas in 2014, in the construction of a tunnel network in Gaza aimed at launching terror attacks against Israel. The DPRK even declared that South Korean efforts to inspect DPRK ships suspected of carrying illicit weapons constitute an act of war.
Additionally, North Korea has provided significant technological assistance to Iran and Syria, two of the three countries on the terror list. In particular, North Korea has assisted Iran in its quest to gain a nuclear bomb. Three North Korean delegations arrived in Iran to provide nuclear assistance in the first five months of 2015 alone. The team sent in late April 2015, likely provided direct assistance to Iran on nuclear warhead design and ballistic missile guidance systems.
The Tower Magazine recently reported that Iranian scientists were present during North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test and North Korean scientists had trained Iran on computer technology relating to these elaborate weapons systems in 2011. As Iran is listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is a clear non sequitur that its North Korean partner is not regarded as a similar threat.
North Korea’s military coordination with Syria further strengthens the case for its inclusion on the terror list. Its cooperation with the Assad family dates back to at least the 1973 war, when North Korea sent fighter pilots to assist Syrian and Egyptian forces against Israel. North Korea has also faced UN scrutiny for assisting the sale of chemical weapons-related equipment to Syria.
In November 2009, Greece confiscated 14,000 chemical weapons suits from a North Korean ship destined for Syria. North Korea subsequently sent military advisors to assist Assad during the Syrian civil war. There have also been persistent claims that the DPRK may have provided some indirect logistical assistance for Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. Therefore, it is clear that North Korea’s engagement with terrorists and terrorist sponsors since its removal from the list in 2008 is sufficiently large to warrant its place as an officially-recognized state sponsor of terrorism.
What Opponents of North Korea’s Inclusion on the Terror List Get Wrong
The case for keeping North Korea off the terror list is largely based on the argument that the DPRK regime has not directly sponsored an attack that fits the conventional definition of terrorism since 1987. In that year, 115 people were killed in the mid-air bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, a heinous crime allegedly carried out on the direct orders of Kim Jong-Il.
This argument is controversial and flawed. North Korea sank a South Korean ship called the ROKS Cheonan in 2010, fuelling widespread speculation that the DPRK would be included on the terror list once again. While this case was technically an act of state terrorism and not state-sponsored terrorism (as it was carried out by the DPRK military and not a non-state actor), it should not be brushed aside lightly.
Even if you exclude the 2010 case from the frame of analysis, North Korea has engaged in frequent acts of what can be described as passive terrorism against the United States. I define passive terrorism, in the context of the DPRK-US relationship, to include the denial of prosecution for known terrorist operatives residing on North Korean soil and the willful obstruction of US counter-terrorism efforts.
North Korea has refused to fully disclose the extent of its abductions of Japanese nationals from 1977-1983 for espionage purposes, or prosecute Kim Il-Sung regime-allied officials involved in these crimes. The DPRK is also labeled by the US government in the grey zone category of being a country that “does not fully assist the US in counter-terrorism efforts.” Its continued funding of Hamas and Hezbollah, clearly exemplifies this, as does its rhetorical solidarity with ISIS’s Iraq branch. North Korea stridently condemned anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq in late 2014, condemning US airstrikes as imperialistic.
The second line of reasoning used by supporters of the current policy is the idea that labeling North Korea as a terror sponsor will have no practical benefits. This rationale is short sighted. Instability stemming from Kim Jong-Il’s declining health was what brought North Korea to the table for limited concessions in 2008. Strains in Pyongyang’s alliance with China, the ravages of drought and the need to execute officials when patronage would normally be sufficient to secure their loyalty suggest that North Korea’s regime could be entering a similar period of weakness now. If additional sanctions were on the table, North Korea might be encouraged to back down from its recent escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Slapping additional sanctions on North Korea could also strengthen the US’s stature as America attempts to mediate growing tensions between its Pacific allies: Japan and South Korea. In my interview with Harvard University Distinguished professor and Asia-Pacific security expert Joseph Nye in June, Nye said that discord between Japan and South Korea was a major concern for US policymakers, as it could compromise efforts to prevent North Korean aggression in the Pacific. If the US labels the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism, it would show solidarity with their shared security threat, North Korea, and allow for the potential creation of a US-South Korea-Japan tripartite pact to aggressively combat North Korea’s destabilizing foreign policy.
North Korea’s removal from the terror list was a knee-jerk decision based on short-term compliance that should be rectified immediately. Its destabilization of the Pacific region and the extension of its geopolitical involvement to the Middle East, poses a severe threat to US national security that should not go unpunished. In the bargain, the US might be able to use its increasingly obsolete terror list to ease tensions brewing in the Pacific.
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