The State Department published its 2016 Country Reports on Terrorism today, and contrary to the evidence, the law, and my predictions, Secretary Tillerson did not re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. I won’t repeat all of the reasons why I believe that this was the wrong decision; you can read the blog post here, or the 100-page, peer-reviewed report here. If I wrote an update to the longer version — and perhaps State’s report is a reason to do that — I could add more recent evidence that would support a re-listing, but it should be obvious by now that State isn’t basing its decisions on the evidence or the law.
In no sense is this report a serious examination of the evidence that Pyongyang sponsored terrorism in calendar year 2016. Its four terse paragraphs (which you can read below the fold) do not mention the still-unexplained axe-murder of Pastor Han Chung-Ryeol, who had aided North Korean refugees in China; reports that it ordered the assassination of prominent defector Ko Young-hwan in South Korea; its promotion of the accomplished terrorist Kim Yong-Chol to manage its relations with Seoul; its call for the murder of South Korea’s then-President; or any of its threats to nuke pretty much everyone.
Mind you, this makes 2016 a slow year for terrorism from North Korea, compared to how 2017 is going so far.
At the same time, the administration isn’t boxing itself in, either. State’s report dryly recounts the narrow legal basis for President Bush’s decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 (discuss among yourselves) and then skims the wave tops of some of the lesser reasons why perhaps it just might be re-listed: it harbors Japanese Red Army hijackers, holds Japanese abductees, does not cooperate with counterterrorism efforts, and has failed to address concerns about terrorist financing and money laundering. It offers no arguments or justifications that would contradict a decision to re-list Pyongyang tomorrow.
Thankfully, the report also spares us the flagrant, oft-repeated lie that North Korea is not known to have sponsored acts of terrorism since 1987, something the State Department had repeated in these reports for years and that may have been the single worst thing about them.
Next year’s report may be more telling. Then, State will have to address Pyongyang’s February 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam’s face (and the rest of him) with VX in that airport terminal crowded with parents, grandparents, babies, and children, and its claim of a universal and plenary right to murder whoever, wherever starting with former President Park Geun-Hye.
The State Department is fond of saying that an SSOT listing of North Korea would be purely symbolic. As I say whenever I hear this, symbols can be powerful things, and no regime places a greater value on symbols than the one in Pyongyang, whose very survival rests on symbols, myths, and illusions that hold its subjects in awe of those who rule over them. State’s decision will also be symbolic of the reasons for Americans — and their elected representatives — to withdraw their confidence from the U.S. Department of State. That withdrawal of confidence is already evident in the Congress, which will continue to push State to explain a decision that its officials could not defend under competent congressional questioning. Fittingly, Congress’s answer will likely be to make State’s analysis increasingly “symbolic” (or irrelevant) by legislating the very consequences, and withdrawing the discretion, that State refuses to apply itself.
Overview: In October 2008, the United States rescinded the designation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a state sponsor of terrorism in accordance with criteria set forth in U.S. law, including a certification that the DPRK had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six‑month period and the provision by the DPRK of assurances that it would not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
Four Japanese Red Army members who participated in a 1970 jet hijacking continued to live in the DPRK. The Japanese government continued to seek a full accounting of the fate of 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities in the 1970s and 1980s. In May 2014, the DPRK agreed to reopen its investigation into the abductions, but as of the end of 2016, had not yet provided the results of this investigation to Japan.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: In May, the United States re-certified the DPRK as a country “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts pursuant to Section 40A of the Arms Export and Control Act, as amended. In making this annual determination, the Department of State reviewed the DPRK’s overall level of cooperation with U.S. efforts to counterterrorism, taking into account U.S. counterterrorism objectives with the DPRK and a realistic assessment of DPRK capabilities.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: In July 2014, the DPRK became an observer, but not a full member, of the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, a Financial Action Task Force (FATF)-style regional body. It has been subject to FATF countermeasures since 2011 on the continued concerns about DPRK’s “failure to address the significant deficiencies in its [anti‑money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT)] regime and the serious threat this poses to the integrity of the international financial system.” Nevertheless, the DPRK failed to demonstrate meaningful progress in strengthening its AML/CFT infrastructure. Similarly, in June 2016, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that the DPRK is a jurisdiction of “primary money laundering concern” and released special measures to further protect the U.S. financial system from abuse. [Department of State]