The United States is considering designating North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, the White House national security adviser said Thursday, a move meant to put additional financial and diplomatic pressure on the totalitarian government.
The State Department faces a congressionally mandated Thursday deadline to respond to several U.S. senators’ request that North Korea be returned to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Currently, the only countries on the list are Iran, Syria and Sudan.
By Thursday afternoon, the State Department had not announced its decision, but White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the U.S. was still considering the move.
The decision comes as President Donald Trump prepares to leave for a five-nation tour of Asia, during which North Korea is expected to be a main focus.
Terror sponsor list
The U.S. put North Korea on the terror sponsor list in 1988, after North Korean agents blew up a South Korean civilian airliner, killing 115 people. But Pyongyang was removed in 2008 after they met specific benchmarks related to a nuclear disarmament deal.
The six-party disarmament talks collapsed a short time later, and North Korea declared the nuclear deal void. It has since conducted five more nuclear tests and steadily ramped up its ballistic missile program, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“We took them off that list for some specific issues we were seeking, mainly the destruction of the cooling tower and some disabling steps,” said former Ambassador Christopher Hill, who led the U.S. delegation to the six-party nuclear talks. “In the meantime, by all accounts they seem to have the graphite-moderated reactor back in service. So they should be put back on the list.”
Under U.S. law, a government must have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” in order to be included on the Sponsors of Terrorism list.
While North Korea is widely regarded as one of the most oppressive governments in the world with respect to its own people, its involvement with international terrorism is less prominent.
But the label is accurate, insists Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
Specifically, Klingner cites recent cyberattacks against U.S. and South Korean targets, including the 2014 attack against Sony Pictures for producing a film critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He also mentions multiple North Korean assassinations and assassination plots, including the killing of Kim Jong Nam, Kim’s half brother, who was poisoned earlier this year at a Malaysian airport.
“While global attention has been on nuclear weapons and missiles, we must not lose sight of North Korea’s terrorist acts and gross violations of human rights,” Klingner said.
The effort to reinstate North Korea to the terror list intensified after American college student Otto Warmbier died in June, shortly after being released from North Korean custody. Warmbier had been sentenced to 15 years hard labor for the alleged theft of a propaganda poster from his North Korean hotel.
At the request of Warmbier’s family, six Democratic and six Republican senators later urged the State Department to consider reinstating North Korea to the list.
Although tragic, the Warmbier case does not seem to meet the statutory criteria for international terrorism, says Daniel Pinkston, who specializes in Northeast Asian security issues at Troy University in Seoul.
There is also a question about whether such a designation, especially at a time of heightened tension, could further complicate efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear and weapons program.
But “those odds are basically at zero anyway,” Pinkston said.
Impact of the move
Returning North Korea to the terror list would mean it is subject to greater restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, defense exports and sales, and other financial transactions.
While Klingner argues the move would have a “tangible impact on regime finances,” Hill says the strategic value of the move is “purely symbolic.”
“If you’re on the list, the U.S. cannot vote for you on a World Bank loan, for example, and cannot sell you military equipment. Well, we’re not going to do that in either case,” Hill said.
In the end, though, he says he “wouldn’t lose any sleep” if Pyongyang were re-added to the list.
“I don’t know the legal justification for putting them back on, but if it’s just being an overall terrible pain in the neck, they more than qualify,” Hill said.