Why North Korea Doesn't Belong on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

Victory Day parade in Pyongyang. Flickr/Creative Commons/Stefan Krasowski

Washington should avoid the search for panaceas.

North Korea acts like an incorrigible child, only with nuclear weapons. Whenever hopes begin to build that Pyongyang is ready to try a new approach, it engages in some new mischief or malice.

So it is with the apparent assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not simply commit a bloody deed characteristic of authoritarian governments around the world. The regime likely used the deadly nerve agent VX at a busy airport filled with bustling travelers. The callous irresponsibility is almost breathtaking.

At least the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, though more threatening, serves clear political and military purposes. Kim Jong-nam appeared to pose no danger to the existing regime. Even if Pyongyang was determined on murder, presumably the unguarded exile could have been killed the old-fashioned way, with a knife or gun at some other time.

So what to do about Pyongyang?

No one has any particularly good ideas. War would be disastrous. More sanctions aren’t likely to work. Beijing is frustrated, but not yet ready to risk the consequences of undermining regime stability in the North. Rhetorical denunciations mean nothing to a government which has perfected the art of the international insult.

Now making the rounds is a proposal to put the DPRK back on the official State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Washington, DC originally added North Korea in 1988 after the latter planted a bomb that destroyed a South Korean airliner. The act was classic terrorism, intended to instill fear prior to the Seoul Olympics.

The Bush administration removed the North from the list in 2008 in an attempt to further the six-party talks regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear program. That effort went nowhere, and since then the DPRK has proceeded with both its nuclear and missile programs.

Out of frustration with the North, the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year approved legislation to put the country back on the terrorism list. Another bill doing so was introduced in the House in January and a half-dozen senators recently urged the State Department to consider the possibility.

After the North’s latest outrage, the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner argued that “It is long past time for Washington to do the right thing and belatedly acknowledge that North Korea’s repeated deadly acts legally constitute terrorist acts and justify returning the regime to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.” In practice, such a designation would allow the Trump administration to target financial transactions, mandate Washington’s opposition to loans and aid from international financial institutions, and eliminate North Korean sovereign immunity from civil lawsuit.

The only problem with the idea is that the North’s behavior, while odious, is not terrorism by any normal definition.

As the State Department has explained, “Countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism are designated pursuant to three laws.” Currently three countries are so designated, but with dubious justification.

Sudan has been on the list since 1993 even though Khartoum long ago abandoned its dalliance with Al Qaeda and U.S. officials acknowledge that Sudan assists Washington in combatting Islamic violence. Indeed, Khartoum likely faces a greater threat from the Islamic State than does the United States. Still, Washington complains about Sudan allowing Hamas to raise money, but the latter governs Gaza after winning an election demanded by Washington. Nothing Khartoum does sounds like having “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” Indeed, the State Department declared that “the United States is pleased with Sudan’s cooperation and the progress being made in their antiterrorist activities.”

Syria was added in 1979. Damascus long has been a repressive rather than terrorist state, as most people would understand it. It has hosted offices for a number of Palestinian groups, some of which have committed terrorist acts. That still falls far short of Syrian “sponsorship.” Most recently, the designation has been justified based on the Assad regime’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its role as a transit point for foreign fighters into Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Hezbollah is another de facto government in conflict with Israel. Providing access to insurgents, some of whom may have committed terrorist acts, doesn’t sound like “sponsoring” terrorism. In fact, Syria’s policy also looks little different than Washington’s support for various armed groups fighting against unfriendly governments over the years.

Even the State Department has admitted that “the Syrian government has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986.” And while Damascus has misused the term by accusing most all of its opponents of being “terrorists,” in the civil war “terrorists” are largely on the other side, attempting to overthrow the regime while killing those who do not hold the most violent and virulent version of Islam.