Yes, the news coverage of President Trump’s decision to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism was lazy and terible, but not in the ways I expected it to be.
— Department of State (@StateDept) November 20, 2017
So far, thankfully, I’ve read relatively little of the junk analysis I expected denying the extensive evidence of Pyongyang’s sponsorship of terrorism, even if some reporters were obviously winging it. Bloomberg’s reporters, for example, clearly hadn’t researched North Korea’s history of terrorism, remembered the Kim Jong-nam assassination, decided that a Google search was too much work, and quit there.
Not one article I read yesterday mentioned that Pyongyang kidnapped the Reverend Kim Dong-shik from China to North Korea and murdered him, for which a U.S. Court of Appeals found it legally liable. No one mentioned the assassination of Patrick Kim in China, or attempts on the lives of Hwang Jang-yop or Park Sang-hak, or the other examples I cited in my report. No one has ever gotten to the bottom of the axe-murder of Pastor Han Chung-ryeol. Hardly anyone even mentioned the threats that shut down “The Interview” and aborted the Steven Carell project “Pyongyang.” I saw one allusion to Pyongyang’s sale of arms to Hamas and/or Hezbollah, but no specific descriptions of it. All of these are facts of public interest to our North Korea policy.
In the end, it’s the administration that will have to explain its decision. It hinted yesterday at new sanctions today. Maybe we’ll see that explanation soon. I hope it’s a detailed bill of particulars.
Critics who knew they had no basis to oppose Trump’s decision substantively questioned the timing instead. To these people, of course, there’s never a good time to hold Pyongyang accountable for, say, using a weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal.
North Korea hasn’t tested a missile in 66 days. Expect that to change now.
— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) November 20, 2017
But the timing was a matter of law. After the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Congress passed the KIMS Act, section 324 of which set a 90-day deadline for the Secretary of State to decide whether North Korea meets the legal criteria under section 6(j). I’ve already seen multiple examples of “experts” and journalists who asserted themselves as authorities on this subject, raised the question of timing, and apparently had no idea of the legal background to the question they raised.
President Trump flew off to Asia having missed his deadline to answer the question of whether Pyongyang sponsors terrorism. His deadline was October 31st. He understandably stretched that deadline for a few weeks while he met with his counterparts in Japan, South Korea, and China first (although I think he missed a great P.R. opportunity by failing to announce it in Japan, surrounded by the families of those abducted by North Korea). Some Trump critics — Trump critics, including me, have expressed the fear that the Constitution and the rule of law won’t contain him without “guardrails” — suggested that in this case, he should have ignored a deadline set by a nearly unanimous Congress. Or hidden his negative response behind a classified annex, which would have been a dangerous abuse of the classification authority. Or continued with the State Department’s Orwellian denials of Pyongyang’s culpability. One wonders how they’d have reacted to Trump flouting a law they agreed with.
Some argue against enforcing laws/resolutions/sanctions when times are quiet (i.e. NK less blatantly violating them) since it would raise tensions nor when tensions are high (when NK on rampage) since it would raise tensions even higher.
— Bruce Klingner (@BruceKlingner) November 21, 2017
As for the answer to the question itself, three federal courts have already answered it in the affirmative. There’s only one right answer. Had Trump answered in the negative, Congress would have excoriated his administration. The State Department’s already abysmal credibility in Congress would have collapsed. There would have been hearings and more reporting requirements. The President would have been embarrassed in a way that he appears unwilling to withstand: he would have looked weak.
Others asked why now, given North Korea’s missile testing pause? But this “pause” probably means nothing more than the fact that North Korea’s soldiers are either engaged in their annual training cycles or are out stealing corn from the farmers — the evidence of which is worth a post in itself. Pyongyang’s language, which soft-liners parse and play up when they see cherries to pick, has never been more belligerent. Wasn’t it only yesterday when KCNA threatened to murder the President?
KCNA: “Those who challenge the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and its social system can never find their place to live under this sky. Rabid dog Trump will certainly be made to pay dearly for his hideous crime.”
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) November 20, 2017
Pyongyang has also been on a belligerent streak against the soft-line government in Seoul, for those who think our tone matters.
KCNA: “The south Korean authorities is nicknamed as ‘poodle’ of Trump as it yields to the U.S. and creeps around the U.S. legs.”
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) November 21, 2017
For now, there is no opportunity to talk to Pyongyang about anything except our lifting of sanctions or our acceptance of its nuclear status. Talks on those terms don’t serve our interests and could only do them grave harm.
On the same day it was put back on the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, North Korea is threatening to annihilate Japan. pic.twitter.com/Delx3PlJNP
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) November 21, 2017
What may be confusing our judgment is Trump himself. We allow our judgments of some of his bad policies, or of the terrible way he communicates, to cloud our judgment of his other policies. In the case of North Korea, those policies appear to be under the sway of more serious-minded advisors in the White House, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the intelligence community. These advisors are helping Trump do what the Obama and Bush administrations were incapable of doing — confronting a grave threat and making hard decisions. I understand that Trump challenges everyone’s objectivity, but North Korea policy is too urgent a matter for us to judge according to our tribal gag reflexes. This time, President Trump made the right call.
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Update: Oh, so you want some examples? Why not start with the single worst journalist covering North Korea for any medium today?
Not surprising to see President Trump add North Korea back to the state sponsor of terror list. One more move, mainly symbolic, to isolate and put pressure on Kim Jong Un. World also shouldn’t be surprised when Kim defies pressure and orders 7th nuke test and more missile tests.
— Will Ripley (@willripleyCNN) November 21, 2017
Yonhap’s coverage was as biased and as lacking in useful information as I’ve come to expect of it since the Korean election, and to the New York Times‘s Choe Sang-hun, it was all about dashing his own illusory hope for talks that Pyongyang doesn’t share. A good rule of thumb for New York Times reporting on Korea is that if a Times reporter wrote it, it’s “analysis” based on a weighted selection of the facts. If it’s really news, a wire service reporter wrote it.
In most other cases, the reporting simply didn’t do a very good job of explaining the issue to readers. Maybe the administration will give them an assist today. The coverage quickly drifted to how the decision would affect the prospect for negotiations, without mentioning that Pyongyang refuses to discuss denuclearization anyway.
— Saul of United (@Viatcheslavsos3) November 21, 2017
As for the common “mostly symbolic” cliche, this began as a State Department talking point when it was flatly false. It has since been promoted to a half-truth by an exasperated Congress that imposed many of the same sanctions legislatively. I’ve already addressed the legal consequences of SSOT plenty of times (see here, here, and page 26) but what all of this discussion misses is that symbols are powerful things, and that perceptions are realities in the financial industry. A lack of strong public messaging has long been a key weakness of our North Korea sanctions effort. A modest clarification and tightening of sanctions, combined with a loud and clear public message, may seem merely symbolic to a journalist or even to a lawyer, but it’s powerfully symbolic to a banker in Hong Kong, a fund manager in New York, an insurer in London, a shipper in Dalian, or a diplomat from Luanda. Nirmal Ghosh of the Straits Times gets that, but he might be the only one who does.
Update 2: Also well worth reading is Benjamin Young’s paper on North Korea’s support for “non-state actors.”