Why Re-Designate North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism?

I make my best case here, at the New Ledger:

Almost a year to the day after Bush’s announcement, North Korea threatened to “wipe out the aggressors” — meaning America — “on the globe once and for all,” and to unleash a “fire shower of nuclear retaliation” on South Korea. The nation most recently stricken from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is also the world’s most accomplished at using its official state media as an instrument of terrorism.  [link]

Update: Sadly, The New Ledger is no more, so I’ve pasted the article below the fold.

A year has now passed since President George W. Bush announced his intention to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The anniversary of North Korea’s absolution is rich in ironies. Only a president so typecast as inflexibly hard-line could have made this decision with so little opposition, and what opposition there was came from members of Bush’s own party who now take small comfort from the vindication of subsequent events.

Almost a year to the day after Bush’s announcement, North Korea threatened to “wipe out the aggressors” — meaning America — “on the globe once and for all,” and to unleash a “fire shower of nuclear retaliation” on South Korea. The nation most recently stricken from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is also the world’s most accomplished at using its official state media as an instrument of terrorism. Indeed, North Korea’s de-listing as a terror sponsor coincided with a marked acceleration of this tendency. In October of 2008, the same month that North Korea’s terror-sponsor de-listing became final, North Korea threatened South Korea’s government with an “advanced pre-emptive strike” that would “reduce everything opposed to the nation and reunification to debris, not just setting them on fire. In December, the North threatened to “turn everything [in South Korea] into a sea of fire” and “reduce everything treacherous and anti-reunification to debris and build an independent reunified country on it.”

In March of this year, shortly before North Korea tested an ICBM designed to hit the United States, North Korea announced that “security cannot be guaranteed for south Korean civil airplanes flying through the territorial air of our side and its vicinity, its territorial air and its vicinity above the East Sea of Korea.” This is no small threat coming from a nation that once shot down an American EC-121 surveillance plane, blew up a South Korean airliner, and has Incheon International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, within easy range of its anti-aircraft missiles. Several air carriers rerouted their flights because of the North Korean threat.

On June 9th, in response to U.N. Security Council’s deliberations over what would become Resolution 1874, North Korea’s Minju Joson newspaper warned that its “nuclear deterrence capability … will become a vehicle for merciless attacks on those who even slightly infringe upon our sovereignty. The following week, the Korean Central News Agency threatened “firm military action if the United States and its allies try to isolate us” and vowed to increase its nuclear weapons production.

There’s little question that North Korea’s threats had an extortionate purpose. An official with the Chosen Soren, a North Korean front organization for ethnic Koreans in Japan, told a Washington Post reporter that “[i]gnoring North Korea is very dangerous,” and that “[i]f Obama ignores North Korea, maybe the Korean Peninsula will be tense. Asked about South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s reduction of the aid that flowed to Pyongyang without impediments or conditions under his leftist predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, the official said, “Our military is very angry that South Korea is not abiding by [Roh’s] agreements” to send more aid, despite North Korea’s failure to give up its nuclear weapons programs. The spokesman warned, “Neglect of this is not so wise. The United States should send a message to Lee.

Individually or collectively, these statements meet the statutory definition of “international terrorism in the U.S. Criminal Code:

[T]he term “international terrorism” means activities that appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and [that] occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum”¦.

This is to say nothing of North Korea’s sentencing of two American journalists to twelve years in its gulag for crossing North Korea’s border with China. The factual circumstances of that incident are, if anything, even less clear now than they were when I last addressed North Korea’s “arrest” of Laura Ling and Euna Lee in May, but in a broader sense, they are also beside the point: in what alternative universe does the crossing of a border by two journalists — who were, at worst, dangerously naive — merit such a punishment? It is also to say nothing of North Korea’s numerous, continuing abductions of Japanese, South Korean, and third-country citizens, or of its kidnapping and murder of a U.S. lawful permanent resident in 2000. It is to say nothing of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation to fellow terror-sponsor Syria, its proliferation of missiles (and possibly much worse) to terror-sponsor Iran, or the evidence of North Korea’s recent support for terrorist organizations noted in this Congressional Research Service report, including the design of Hezbollah’s tunnel system in southern Lebanon.

Although North Korea neither admitted, ceased, nor clearly renounced any past sponsorship of terrorism, President Bush’s decision had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with the investment of his diplomatic legacy in Kim Jong Il’s word. Specifically, the de-listing was given in exchange for a North Korea declaration of its nuclear programs that was neither complete nor correct, and which North Korea had stalled for a year. In its long-delayed declaration, North Korea never admitted the extent of its uranium enrichment program, never disclosed the number or location of its completed nuclear weapons, provided no information about other reactors in various stages of completion, and merely “acknowledged” U.S. concerns about North Korea’s past proliferation to Syria. It also balked at U.S. verification of what little it had declared. President Bush, realizing that the North Korea’s poor performance could make his concession a controversial one, insisted that the de-listing would be contingent on North Korea’s future behavior:

The six-party process has shed light on a number of issues of serious concern to the United States and the international community. To end its isolation, North Korea must address these concerns. It must dismantle all of its nuclear facilities, give up its separated plutonium, resolve outstanding questions on its highly enriched uranium and proliferation activities, and end these activities in a way that we can fully verify.

President Bush also felt obligated to add a token call for North Korea to release the people it had abducted from Japan, although nothing suggests that our diplomats made much of an issue of this in practice. President Bush continued:

This can be a moment of opportunity for North Korea. If North Korea continues to make the right choices, it can repair its relationship with the international community “¦. If North Korea makes the wrong choices, the United States and our partners in the six-party talks will respond accordingly. If they do not fully disclose and end their plutonium, their enrichment, and their proliferation efforts and activities, there will be further consequences”¦.

[O]ur policy, and the statement today, makes it clear we will hold them to account for their promises. And when they fulfill their promises, more restrictions will be eased. If they don’t fulfill their promises, more restrictions will be placed on them.

At the time, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama offered strictly conditional support for President Bush’s decision:

This is a step forward, and there will be many more steps to take in the days ahead. Critical questions remain unanswered. We still have not verified the accuracy of the North Korean declaration. We must confirm the full extent of North Korea’s past plutonium production. We must also confirm its uranium enrichment activities, and get answers to disturbing questions about its proliferation activities with other countries, including Syria”¦.

Sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on North Korean performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward.

In retrospect, those words look like so much bait-and-switch. North Korea continued to renege and, as we have seen, to provoke, throughout the final months of the Bush Administration, and even as the Obama Administration took office prepared to continue Bush’s conciliatory policy. For reasons known only to Kim Jong Il, he accelerated his provocations to a level that not even President Obama was willing to tolerate, though the question of re-adding North Korea to the terror-sponsor list remains outstanding.

The Administration has been vague about its intentions. When Secretary of State Clinton was asked about it recently, she gave a cryptic, clintonian, no-controlling-authority answer:

“We’re going to look at it. There’s a process for it,” Clinton said in the interview, taped Thursday in Egypt. “Obviously we would want to see recent evidence of their support for international terrorism.” She added, “We’re just beginning to look at it. I don’t have an answer for you right now.”

Mrs. Clinton now hides within the semantics of distinguishing the sponsorship of terrorism from direct, retail state terrorism — as if a state did not sponsor its own border guards, spies, and official mouthpieces. Certainly the advocates of striking North Korea from the list a year ago were not so fastidious in their reading of the law; they just wanted to save their deal. Fine, then. I would concede to the critics that the best characterization of North Korea is not as a sponsor of terrorism, if they will concede that North Korea is best described as a terrorist entity in itself. But that is why we have Executive Order 13224.

Congress, which created the list of state sponsors of terrorism, has done no better. John Kerry’s Foreign Relations Committee recently blocked a bill that would have re-added North Korea to the terror-sponsor list and called for the immediate release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The same has since happened in the House. This leaves the current position of our government far from clear. A North Korean missile launch over the Fourth of July weekend could always clarify matters, of course.

Admittedly, the sanctions associated with the list of state sponsors of terrorism are modest, particularly when compared to the comprehensive and potentially tough financial sanctions President Obama seems to be contemplating, much to his credit. The main impact of a listing would be North Korea’s eligibility for international loans, which U.S. diplomats at the United Nations would likely block anyway.

The listing still matters because principle matters, especially when it comes to our government’s response to terrorism and proliferation. In our dealings with North Korea, we’ve paid a terrible price for the North Koreans’ well-founded conclusion that our words and warnings mean nothing in practice. Backing our diplomacy with principle comes with a cost in short-term expediency, to be sure, but the long-term cost of its absence has been much greater. From it, North Korea has inferred a license to disregard both our demands and its own commitments. If our diplomats (and presidents) expect to be taken seriously, the least they must do is abide by the conditions they attach to the concessions they extend.

But if the question of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism is at issue, then North Korea’s words and deeds speak for themselves. Instead of disarming as promised, North Korea provided an incomplete disclosure, balked at verification, violated two U.N. resolutions and forced the passage of a third, continued its proliferation business, reneged on every one of its Agreed Framework I and Agreed Framework II commitments, took two American journalists as effective hostages for “offenses” that would not justify imprisonment in any other country, and threatened to destroy at least three other countries. If that does not merit a black mark in the Code of Federal Regulations, who exactly does Kim Jong Il have to kill to get one?