Josh Stanton on North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terror



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.

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