So North Korea has now seized a South Korean fishing boat in the Sea of Japan:
Four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen were questioned for an alleged violation of the North’s exclusive economic zone, South Korea’s coast guard said in a statement. It said the fishing boat was being taken toward the North Korea’s eastern port of Songjin. A South Korean fisherman told South Korea via a satellite phone that his boat was being towed by a North Korean patrol, according to the coast guard.
The coast guard said it was not clear where exactly the 41-ton fishing boat was operating when it was seized. The boat departed South Korea’s southeastern port of Pohang on Aug. 1 and was scheduled to return home on September 10. South Korea called on the North to quickly return the fishing boat and its crew.
The boat was seized off of Cape Musudan, a sensitive area that includes a missile launch site, a nuclear testing site, and one very large political prison camp. North Korea sometimes claims that the waters far off that coast are part of an exclusive economic zone, one that isn’t recognized under international law.
If you appreciate irony as much as I do, you’ve probably noticed that the seizure comes just a day after the State Department released its new list of state sponsors of terrorism with one conspicuous omission. Feel free to stop me if you don’t know the background here, but for those who haven’t, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 to reward it for giving up its nuclear weapons. As of last week, President Obama saw no particular reason to disturb that decision.
Interestingly enough, other people are starting to raise some of the same questions I’ve been asking about North Korea’s shipment of arms to Iranian-backed terrorists and attempts to murder Hwang Jang Yop, as in, aren’t those classic examples of the sponsorship of terrorism? Yonhap quotes the State Department’s non-response to allegations that the North Korean arms shipment seized in Bangkok last year was headed for Hezbollah or Hamas:
Daniel Benjamin, coordinator of the State Department’s Office for Counterterrorism, told reporters that the department has been “looking into” those allegations.
“The secretary and others in the administration have been clear that if we find that Korea is, indeed, sponsoring terrorism, obviously we will revisit the issue of the listing as a state sponsor,” he said. “But Korea was de-listed in accordance with U.S. law in 2008 and it was at that time certified that North Korea had not supported any terrorism in the previous six months.”
And how about the attempt to assassinate Hwang?
“We’ve seen those reports. We are looking into them,” said Benjamin. “The Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] and others in the administration have been clear that if we find that [North] Korea is indeed sponsoring terrorism, obviously, we will revisit the issue of the listing as a state sponsor.
Benjamin said deciding which country will be put on the list is a laborious process that takes some time, adding that “I’m fully aware of that issue and we are looking at it quite carefully.
And we still haven’t even broached the topic of North Korea’s possible sale of surface-to-air missiles to Al Qaeda for use in Afghanistan.
In one hat tip to the truth, State’s list notes that North Korea is still harboring four Japanese Red Army hijackers. The JRA, with the support of North Korea, carried out the deadly 1970 terrorist attack that killed 26 people — 17 of them Americans — and which was the subject of a recent $378 million judgment against North Korea. North Korea was amenable to suit in a U.S. federal district court because the 1970 attack was one basis for its original listing as a sponsor of terrorism, putting it within the 2001 terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
I just can’t figure this administration out. On one hand, it seems to be putting together a tough and potentially devastating sanctions policy, and is signaling its determination to keep those sanctions in place until it curtails North Korea’s illicit activity and forces it to change its belligerent behavior. To my ongoing astonishment, the Obama Administration’s overall North Korea policy is far, far tougher than President Bush’s, which was largely a bipolar fluctuation between tough words and weak actions.
And yet this administration’s refusal to reverse one of President Bush’s key errors and re-add North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism defies the evidence, misstates the law, and sends a signal of weakness that doesn’t really seem to accurately reflect the top policymakers’ intentions. Without knowing the substance of the internal debates inside the administration beyond the fact that there are debates, I can only explain this as the product of a compromise between opposing camps. I can understand that sending a nuanced set of mixed signals can be useful sometimes for signaling our willingness to talk, but when we twist law and fact and abandon core principles, the nuance is going to get lost in translation. But then, if North Korea’s own diplomacy is nuanced, that’s been lost in translation, too.