North Korea: Evil, But Not a Terrorist State

May 4, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaWeaponsTerrorism

North Korea: Evil, But Not a Terrorist State

"What Pyongyang apparently has not done since 1987 is initiate a terrorist attack against anyone, let alone America."

Indeed, the ineffectiveness of U.S. policy was a good argument for the Bush administration’s decision to delist the North. The Clinton administration’s Agreed Framework slowed North Korean nuclear developments; in contrast, George W. Bush’s attempt to isolate the government of Kim Jong-il, in Bush’s view a loathsome member of the “axis of evil,” failed utterly. Not only has Pyongyang continued to treat its entire nation as a prison, it has engaged in the activities documented by Stanton and by some estimates could amass a nuclear arsenal as large as 100 warheads by 2020.

When everything else has failed, it makes sense to look for alternatives. And that is easier when the law does not limit diplomatic and economic options. Nor would Pyongyang necessarily remain quiescent in response to what it would see as another U.S. attack. Warned CRS, the DPRK could “ respond to a redesignation by taking additional provocative actions, such as more nuclear-weapon or long-range-missile tests .” Beijing might be less receptive to American concerns over Pyongyang’s behavior. Indeed, China routinely meets U.S. complaints with the response that the U.S. should engage rather than threaten the North.

Washington’s official terrorism designation has never had much to do with actual support for terrorism. Noted CRS, “historically, diplomatic and policy considerations appear to have played a prominent role in the State Department’s decisions about the DPRK’s place.” And in designating other nations as well. Instead of making the SSOT standards clearer, Congress should eliminate the designation altogether. If Washington wants to penalize another country, it should do so directly. By relying on an arbitrary label (the narco-state listing runs into similar problems), U.S. officials spend more time avoiding than applying the law.

Calling North Korea a terrorist sponsor might offer emotional release, but won’t make the claim true. Moreover, relisting Pyongyang would be no substitute for reconsidering Washington's ineffective policy toward this difficult and threatening state. There are no good answers when dealing with the North. But an SSOT designation would be a bad one.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World .