Josh Stanton on North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terror

April 27, 2015 12:15 PM

This afternoon, from 6 – 7:30 PM, Joshua Stanton will present his new report “Arsenal of Terror: North Korea, State Sponsor of Terrorism” sponsored and commissioned by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. In addition to the main presentation by Mr. Stanton, speakers and discussants include Suzanne Scholte, Nicholas Eberstadt, Greg Scarlatoiu, and Marcus Noland.

The full report (.pdf) is an exhaustive– albeit highly readable – accounting of the legal foundations of the United States’ State Sponsor of Terror (SSOT) list, and a catalog of North Korean state actions that have justified its inclusion for two decades. Although North Korea was removed from the SSOT list in 2008, Stanton ultimately argues that “It is past time for the Secretary of State to carefully review North Korea’s past and recent conduct and to recognize that North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

North Korea was listed on the SSOT list between 1988 and 2008. The 1988 listing was chiefly motivated by the November 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 attributed to North Korean agents, as well as a 1983 bombing in Rangoon that killed 21 -- though not the intended target, South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan. During this time, North Korea continued to engage in state-sponsored acts of terror and provide assistance to known terror groups.

The Bush Administration’s removal of North Korea from the SSOT list in 2008 was connected to ongoing denuclearization and rapprochement talks at the time, including the Six Party Talks. However, Stanton provides a strong case that the regime has continued to engage in activities that satisfy the legal definitions of “international terrorism” and terror “support”, including:

  • Suspected arms transfers to terrorists. Between 2008 and 2014, there have been multiple interdictions of arms shipments bound for Syria and Iran. Intelligence reports and investigative journalism strongly suggest these illicit shipments are ultimately destined for terrorist-designated organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
  • Threats against civilian targets in South Korea. Threats levied by KCNA and other state organs towards civilians in South Korea are numerous and routine almost to the point of banality. In most cases, North Korea’s threats refer to direct military action and thus don’t necessarily fall under the definition of international terrorism. However, they do satisfy other criteria, namely the intention to “terrorize”, and to go after civilian targets like newspapers, civilian airliners, and so on.

In many areas, North Korea’s actions fall into legal grey zones (direct military attacks against South Korea, proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons technology, nuclear and missile tests, etc.) that only partially or indirectly meet criteria for international terror. Cyber-attacks are one such topical and potentially dangerous area. The massive intrusion on Sony studios late last year was one high-profile example among many incidents attributed to North Korean hackers, including attacks on banks, websites, newspapers, and broadcasters inside and outside of South Korea. Stanton argues that the Sony hack does not constitute terrorism, as it was not a “violent” attack and, arguably, no “dangerous device” was employed. In contrast, the cyber intrusion into South Korea’s nuclear power facilities late last year – which was not connected to North Korea at the time but has since been attributed to North Korea by South Korea – could fit under the legal purview of “international terrorism.”

Going forward, Stanton urges that North Korea’s continued activity in spheres that directly or partially fall under international terrorism should prompt the Secretary of State to review the country’s re-listing on the SSOT list. In order to improve the process and make designations more transparent in the future, Stanton concludes that officials should clarify the legal standards for SSOT listing, reconsider the effectiveness of the resulting sanctions, and consider the creation of an alternative list that sanctions “threats to international peace”; it is on this list that all of all grey area-activities – including military actions, threats to civilians, and cyber offenses – could clearly fall.

“Arsenal of Terror” provides an excellent overview of this important topic for both the initiated and un-initiated alike. As an attorney with decades of experience, Stanton takes the legal constraints of his arguments very seriously. He is explicit on the fact that there is no clear-cut definition of what constitutes “international terrorism” or “support”, and what admittedly murky language we do have does not unequivocally apply to many activities perpetrated by North Korea, as odious as they are. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence to reopen the issue of whether North Korea should fall back onto the State Sponsor of Terror list.

Disclosure Notice: Marcus Noland is a current member of the HRNK board.


Michael Bassett

Intelligence without perspective is like a nuclear weapon without a fail-safe. Stanton's lack of perspective is dangerous. Does he seriously expect that by adding North Korea back to the SSOT list, they will become less threatening to international peace? Since they've been off the list they've abandoned military-fist policy, directing attention and resources to economic development. It was in that 20 year period that they developed their program, and the lesson they learned from that period is to never give them up because nukes are their only defense against immanent destruction because people in Washington like Stanton vehemently advocate for the violent overthrow of North Korea. They see Libya and Iraq and don't want to be that. The best way to change North Korea is to flood them with information and development.

Frank Plantan

Thank you for sharing this important document. It is always tough for policy makers to decide when to negotiate and when to take a harder line and realpolitik and things like alliance commitments, let alone national security requirements make it easier to stay the course or maintain the status quo.
Commentator Michael BAssett has it all wrong on the abandonment of the military first policy. The only thing he left off of his comment about NK not wanting to end up like Iraq or Libya was to preface it with the necessity of defending the motherland from the American Imperialists.

Michael Bassett

Thanks for trying to add to my comment some red-baiting points, but you'll not find them added by me. Keep them in your own. Red-baiting comes from folks full of ideology and empty of ideas.

1. The byeongjin policy is the abandonment of Songun. They've invested in 28 SEZ's, and Sinuiju is on course to becoming the Hong Kong of North Korea. They could have spent all those resources on the military if the military was first, but instead their soldiers do construction more than training and have no formidable military industrial complex. They have a weak and small nuclear program and the worlds largest, albeit decrepit, submarine fleet. All the rockets they shot of this year was due to the fact that they're past their expiration date and they burned them off to "hold the frontlines" while KJU was recovering from his ankle injury. In the meantime, they built an international airport and legalized free travel to an international tourist zone, and day trips from China. The outside world is ignoring the fact that they're devolving the necessity away from military while only maintaining the minimum necessary to keep them from being invaded during the process.

2. My argument about development and information flooding is based of of the Hans-Rossling model of development and democracy. The fact that information flooding has impacted the north's propaganda machine is seen in their recent portrayal of the Sewol Ferry Uprising compared to the Kwangju Uprising.

Andrew Logie

"Flood them with information and development".. because that's worked well for Myanmar, and every kleptocracy with oil so far. EVEN if the NK regime let you flood them with "development," there's absolutely no guarantee it would change much of NK quicker than it would naturally change anyway (i.e. over decades), and that doesn't help anyone currently stuck in a political prison camp, which is the only part of NK the outside world should feel immediately concerned for. As noted, NK is never going to give up its nuclear weapons regardless of economic progress, so nothing can be done about them short of military strikes - which has nothing to do with information or "development." So, unless the end goal of "development" is actually some sort of regime change, it won't really improve anything other than the lives of people who are already relatively okay. If the unstated goal of "development" IS some kind of regime change, then Stanton's methods may be more effective. (If it hasn't already, Sinuiji will just turn into a casino, or maybe a casino and sweatshops with some industrial pollution.)

Michael Bassett

The Korean War is the most advanced propaganda war in human history. As a result, every North Korea watcher somehow magically transforms into a psychic savant medium and can predict the future of unknown unknowns.

Charles Park

Josh Stanton makes a very weak case for additional sanctions. His case seems to be built on hearsay and his argument seems to boil down to "We should sanction, because we damn can." As a lawyer, he should know better. Further, as a person, he has no knowledge or care for the tragic socio-economic implications of economic sanctions for the bystanders. Yet, here he is on this forum presented without critical analysis.


Charles, where is your evidence that sanctions hurt anyone in the DPRK? Much like your hypothesis that a peace treaty will change things, it is built on total speculation.

Liars N. Fools

The SSOT sanctions are symbolically important. The real sanctions issue is whether America expands sanctions on Chinese entities on a more comprehensive basis. This is delicate because of South Korean equities and, of course, Chinese equities. But if the Obama administration wants to pursue pressure to induce serious and credible negotiations then secondary sanctions against Chinese entities is one path, as well as denying the North Korean export labor revenue. The Obama administration may soon hit a point when it goes down these paths.

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