North Korea’s New Terror Wave

You probably heard somewhere that President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, to reward it for promising to completely, verifiably, and irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons. You probably also know that I did not favor this decision, to put it mildly. First, North Korea never acknowledged or apologized for its past and continuing acts of state-directed terrorism, such as the abduction and murder of Rev. Kim Dong Shik, its support for Hezbollah, or its failure to fully account for foreign abductees. Second, the latter concern meant that de-listing North Korea would cause grave damage to our relations with our Japanese ally. Third, by the summer of 2008, North Korea’s compliance with Agreed Framework II was on a clear track toward repudiating the very commitments that the de-listing was meant to reward: North Korea had already been caught building the Syrians a nuclear reactor, had failed to deliver a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, was stalling on verification, and was turning over samples that were smeared with highly enriched uranium, even as it continued to repeat the lie that it had no HEU program. And given all of that has happened since 2008, President Obama’s failure to reverse President Bush’s decision was legally wrong, bad diplomacy, and irreconcilable with a credible counter-terrorism policy. There is also the matter of its inconsistency with then-Senator Obama’s promises to oppose de-listing if North Korea failed to account for Rev. Kim and keep its Agreed Framework II obligations.

Even so, proponents of de-listing could still say in the summer of 2008 that North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism was at historically low levels, at least compared to its own past history, at least as long as they could overlook North Korea’s use of its state media to terrorize the governments and populations of other states. After all, North Korea’s threats of nuclear force were so frequent before and after the listing that it’s hard to say that its removal from the terror list coincided with a measurable increase in that trend.

In other important ways, however, the de-listing of North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism has coincided with an alarming increase in the North’s willingness to arm terrorists, terrorize its neighbors, and send its agents abroad to murder its critics. Certainly before President Bush de-listed North Korea, we had not seen anything like North Korea’s sale of weapons, including man-portable surface-to-air missiles, to terrorists, at least in open sources. Before 2008, the idea that the North would torpedo a South Korean warship or shell a South Korean fishing village to punish it for cutting off aid would have been unthinkable. Those attacks transformed the military stalemate on the Korean peninsula from one of mutual deterrence and stalemate to one of limited war and failing deterrence.

In 2008, North Korea was not known to have attempted to assassinate any of its critics abroad since its assassination of Lee Han-Young in Seoul in 1997. But last July, two agents of the North Korean ruling party’s Reconnaissance Bureau were arrested and pled guilty to attempting to assassinate high-level defector Hwang Jang-Yop, a needless and reckless act given that Hwang was 87 at the time. (He died of natural causes a few months later). It wasn’t the first attempt. Before her October 2008 conviction, North Korean spy Won Jeong-Hwa unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate “a South Korean military officer in Hong Kong using an aphrodisiac laced with poison,” and “tried to but failed to meet and assassinate Hwang.” Won was also carrying poisoned needles, which she was ready to jab into “South Korean intelligence agents” when ordered to do so. In other words, the North was probably planning the first of its recent wave of assassinations in the South at the very time it was demanding that the Bush Administration de-list it as a sponsor of terrorism.

It is useful to remind ourselves that “international terrorism” is a word that means something. The U.S. Criminal Code defines it this way:

As used in this chapter –

(1) the term “international terrorism” means activities that –
(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State;
(B) 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
(C) 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; [18 U.S.C. sec. 2331]

Since 2008, poisoned needles seem to have become the North Korean terrorist’s weapon of choice. We’ve seen a wave of actual and abortive needle attacks in recent weeks:

A South Korean missionary died in the Chinese border city of Dandong last month after suddenly collapsing, a South Korean official said Friday. The 46-year-old missionary, identified by his family name Han, fell to the ground while foaming at the mouth as he waited for a taxi in the city’s downtown area on Aug. 21, according to the official of the South Korean Consulate in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. [Yonhap]

The death follows a separate attack in which a South Korean activist — also working in northeast China — says he was stabbed with a poison-tipped needle, the Korea JoongAng Daily reported. The unidentified man said he had been stabbed in the waist with a poisoned needle after leaving a sauna in the province of Jilin, before collapsing in the street and being rushed to the hospital, the paper said. He had reportedly been openly protesting against the North’s regime.

The [South Korean] foreign ministry said it did not know whether there was any North Korean involvement in the two incidents, but its diplomats had asked Chinese authorities to ensure the safety of South Koreans near the North’s border. It said Chinese police conducted an initial autopsy but found no traces of poison. They proposed a second one but Kim’s family wanted to go ahead with cremation. The consulate “has strongly requested the related organization in the Chinese government to ensure the safety of South Koreans in border regions, and plans to take necessary measures to prevent further incidents from happening,” its statement said. [AFP]

Given the obvious suspicions about China’s candor, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know precisely what happened to these two men, but South Korean investigators aren’t the only ones who suspect the obvious suspect:

Tim Peters, a Seoul-based Christian activist, said he had a “very strong suspicion” but no evidence that the missionary who died had been poisoned by the North’s agents. He told AFP the victim had been involved in evangelical work among North Korean refugees, an activity that was taken extremely seriously by the regime.

Peters founded Helping Hands Korea, an organisation involved in evangelising and giving general assistance to refugees from the North who cross into northeast China. Asked if missionaries were in fear of such attacks, he said: “There’s a kind of sobering awareness that this is always lurking in the shadows. It’s part of the price one pays for doing missionary work in this area.”

South Korean pastor Kim Dong-Shik was kidnapped in Yanji in January 2000 and taken to North Korea, according to Seoul authorities. [AAP]

And now, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service says it has foiled a poison-needle plot against Park Sang-Hak, the leader of Fighters for a Free North Korea, a/k/a The Balloon People:

South Korea has arrested a North Korean agent who plotted to assassinate an outspoken anti-Pyongyang activist with a poison-tipped needle, the intended victim and a news report said Friday. The agent, identified only as An, was in possession of the needle and other weapons at the time of his arrest, Yonhap news agency said. The target of the apparent plot, the latest of several blamed on Pyongyang, was activist Park Sang-Hak, who is involved in launching cross-border propaganda leaflets fiercely critical of the North’s regime. [….]

An, a former North Korean special forces commando aged in his 40s, came to the South in the late 1990s as a defector but disappeared several years ago, according to Yonhap. After resurfacing in the South in February, An sought to meet Park. But Park, alerted by the anti-espionage agency, said he did not show up for a meeting with An at a subway station in southern Seoul on September 3. “An told me by phone that he was to be accompanied by a visitor from Japan who wants to help our efforts. But then I was told by the NIS not to go to the meeting due to the risk of assassination,” Park told AFP. “Following advice from intelligence authorities and police, I don’t see any strangers these days.” [AFP]

The anniversary of 9/11 is a fitting occasion to ask the extent to which we’re prepared to overlook the use of terrorism by foreign governments. North Korea was originally de-listed to induce it into nuclear disarmament, something that almost no one now believes North Korea will ever do. If de-listing was really about diplomatic and political calculations, no one really believed that counter-terrorism was one of its major policy goals. But shouldn’t it matter that since North Korea’s de-listing, it has increasingly relied on terrorism as an instrument of national policy to serve its political objectives?

As ordinary citizens, of course, we have little influence over such arcane questions of foreign policy. But one way to register your opinion effectively would be to contribute to Park Sang-Han’s Fighters for a Free North Korea through the North Korean Freedom Coalition.


  1. The six party talks may resume. Sergei Lankov says, “It is positive that negotiations have begun again. However, there is zero chance that these negotiations will ever bring the officially intended result, that is, democratization of North Korea. North Korea is not going to surrender its nuclear weapons.” And Kim ” …saw how Gaddafi was betrayed, and he will not do it himself.” Here’s the story at CNN


  2. By the definition used in this article, the US is just as much a “terrorist state” as North Korea is.
    Think about it.