The Skeptics

North Korea Is a Bad Actor—but That Doesn't Make It a State Sponsor of Terrorism

President Donald Trump demonstrated his contempt for the law in naming North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. But he only followed precedent. Also listed are Iran, Syria and Sudan, yet none of them underwrites terrorism, let alone against America. But the designation is a matter of politics, not policy.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is an awful regime: it violates its people’s human rights, is developing a nuclear arsenal, and decades ago launched terrorist attacks against South Korea. But it has not engaged in terrorism for years.

Over the years advocates of tagging the DPRK as a terrorist state have cited a long list of misdeeds, including “duplicity in its negotiations with the United States” and defiance of “the international community.” If duplicity and defiance justified a designation as a terrorist sponsor, every government, including Washington, would be in the dock. There also was North Korea’s 2014 hack of Sony Pictures, which was odious, but not terrorism. (Under that standard Washington’s apparent use of computer viruses against the Iranian nuclear and North Korean missile programs would constitute . . . terrorism.)

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President Trump cited the murder of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother. It almost certainly was carried out on Kim’s orders. But that was an individual assassination, for very practical political ends—to deny China a potential frontman with “royal” blood for a possible alternative regime. The president also pointed to the death of American college student Otto Warmbier. He deserved far better, but neither his doctors nor the coroner found evidence of torture, and even torture—employed by a number of America’s allies, including Egypt and Turkey—is not terrorism. The North is a bad actor, but that doesn’t make it a state sponsor of terrorism.

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Indeed, the designation long ago lost all meaning. There are possible targets—Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for instance, which have furnished abundant money and people for terrorism. Some of the other Gulf States, U.S. allies all, have been lax, at best, in cutting off funds for terrorist groups. But none of them are, or ever were, listed.

In contrast, Cuba was on the list until President Barack Obama removed it; Cuban-Americans were more likely to use terrorism against Havana than the Cuban government was to use terrorism against America. Sudan is on the list even though its involvement in terrorism is decades old; indeed, Washington officials admit that Khartoum has been helpful in fighting Islamic radicals and in January dropped other, longstanding economic sanctions.

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Syria and Iran also are on the list. Both have been bad actors—along with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and plenty of other nations in the Middle East and elsewhere. But neither Damascus nor Tehran underwrites terrorism as commonly understood. They have supported Hamas and Hezbollah, but for geopolitical reasons: the latter two are quasi-governments that control territory, and, notably, have never targeted America. (The 1983 attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon predate Hezbollah’s creation and really weren’t terrorism, since they responded to U.S. military intervention in the ongoing civil war.)

More specifically, the State Department cites Syria’s failure to crack down on terrorist financing. Yet as noted earlier, America’s Gulf State allies—Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait—all have far greater problems in that regard. Why aren’t they designated?

Even more bizarrely, Washington blames Iran for taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the Iraq invasion and working with Shia groups in Iraq—which effectively joined the United States in battling the Islamic State. Finally, the State Department terrorism report targets Iran’s support for Yemeni Houthis, involved in a civil war in which the United States has aided intervention by Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have killed thousands of civilians. By this standard, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump should be in the dock for their aid for Saudi “terrorism.”

The DPRK was delisted in 2008 by the Bush administration, which flipped its policy toward Pyongyang from isolation to engagement. As noted earlier, the North has committed plenty of bad acts. But the Kim dynasty’s last true terrorist attack was in 1987. (For removal from the list the statute requires not having provided any support for terrorism for at least six months.) The North should have come off the list years long before 2008.