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The Peninsula

Does North Korea Belong Back on the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism?

Published March 22, 2017
Category: North Korea

By Gwanghyun Pyun

After the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, there have been increasingly active calls to reinstate North Korea to the U.S. government’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Congressman Ted Poe introduced a bill last month that would put North Korea back on the list, and Ted Yoho (R-FL), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, mentioned that there is a “strong consensus” in Congress on designating North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. With the U.S. government set to release the next update on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in April, many will be watching with keen interest in April to see what position it takes.

North Korea had previously been on the list from 1987 until the Bush administration removed it from the list in 2008 as part of the negotiations on the DPRK’s nuclear program. Since the removal, there has been much debate about whether North Korea should be reinstated, adding it to the three countries now on the list (Iran, Syria, and Sudan). There have been two important components to the conversation:  legal considerations and diplomatic considerations. First, is it legally possible to call North Korea a State Sponsor of Terrorism? Second, if the United States were to put North Korea on the list, will it truly influence North Korea’s future behavior?

In order to legally determine whether a country should be on the list, the U.S. government has to demonstrate that the country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. “International terrorism” means terrorism involving the citizens or the territory of more than one country, while the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents. The reason for the removal in 2008 was, in part, because according to a Congressional report North Korea has not been conclusively linked to any terrorist acts since 1987. In addition, some experts said that many of North Korea’s provocations are state vs. state activities that cannot be legally considered terrorism.

Last February in a hearing, Congressman Brad Sherman insisted that the United States should never have taken North Korea off the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. North Korea demonstrated it is ‘acting with impunity’ in assassinating Kim Jong-nam. In addition, it launched a new type of medium range missile a day before the assassination while Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was visiting the United States. Additionally, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program and conducted four tests since being delisted as part of the denuclearization process.

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam has led to increasing calls to reinstate North Korea on the terrorism list. For many, the assassination is an apparent terrorist act because Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at a public airport, allegedly using the highly toxic VX nerve agent, which is classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction. In addition, the chief of the Malaysian National Police Agency announced that the assassination involved a North Korean diplomat and an officer of Air Koryo, an airline run by the North Korean government. Yun Byung-se, the South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, has said that if the assassination was backed by the North Korean government, it is clearly nation-led terrorism. In addition to the latest incident, North Korea has been responsible for several other terrorist-like activities since 2008, such as the cyberattack against Sony Pictures and assassinations plots against high rank defectors and Korean agents.

However, it is far from clear that North Korea can be reinstated to the list. For years, the United States has held its ground and not defined North Korea’s activities as terrorism, especially, in the case of cyberattacks, which have never been defined as terrorism.  Some of North Korea’s other actions, including the assassination, may not meet the requirement of the definition of “terrorism” perfectly.

From the diplomatic view, there is a debate on whether reinstating North Korea to the list would be effective in changing North Korea’s behavior. According to U.S. law, a country on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list faces mandatory sanctions including restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over the export of dual use items, and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. However, even if the U.S. does not designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world.

Although North Korea is already heavily sanctioned, the effect of relisting would be largely symbolic, without any new sanctions. However, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said reinstating North Korea on the U.S. terrorism list would have the effect of highlighting North Korea’s brutalities. In addition, Professor Robert Kelly of Pusan National University stated “It might tell China that the U.S. is running out of patience, but the U.S. has signaled that before.”

The purpose of the Kim Jong-nam assassination was to strengthen the Kim regime’s hold on power by removing a possible successor. Although the regime’s actions mainly dealt with a domestic situation, it is clear that the assassination deteriorated North Korea’s foreign relations. Its behaviors are also threatening the security of South Korea and Japan, and both countries are supporting calls to put North Korea back on the list of State Sponsor of Terrorism. Now, the voices calling to reinstate North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism are louder than ever in the United States and abroad. The United States government should sincerely listen, and look into restoring North Korea to the list.

Gwanghyun Pyun is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Sogang University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Roman Harak’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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