North Korea: Back on the Terrorism List?

May 23, 2016 7:00 AM

North Korea was placed on the US government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1987. Its inclusion on the list was justified on the grounds of weapons sales to terrorist groups, the provision of asylum to Japanese Red Army Faction airplane hijackers, the Rangoon bombing, which killed South Korean high officials, and the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858. As Joshua Stanton documents in his superb report, Arsenal of Terror, written for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea (full disclosure: I am on the Board), in subsequent years, additional justifications were appended to this bill of particulars.

In 2008, in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, North Korea was removed from the list. It was a controversial decision: while it was true, North Korea had not blown up any airliners since 1987, other behavior which would have justified continued listing had not abated, and the removal appeared to be motivated largely by the State Department’s desire to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough before Bush left office.

The key takeaway from Stanton’s report was that North Korea’s actions in the period since 2008 justified relisting, and by not doing so, State’s obfuscation rendered the law meaningless.

Now, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tx), the chair of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Ca), the subcommittee’s ranking member, have co-sponsored legislation, North Korea State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act of 2016, that would basically force State’s hand, requiring it to report within 90 days of enactment whether (1) North Korea is responsible for 23 specific acts specified in the legislation and (2) if those acts meet the definition of terrorism. 

It is unlikely that this legislation will pass the in the current Congress.  But like earlier sanctions legislation sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Ca), which was rapidly enacted in response to subsequent nuclear and missile tests, the North Korea State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act tees up the re-listing of North Korea.

Given the truncated election year legislative calendar, it is unlikely this legislation will pass in the current Congress.  But like earlier sanctions legislation sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Ca), which was rapidly enacted in response to subsequent nuclear and missile tests, the North Korea State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act tees up the re-listing of North Korea, if, as many expect, North Korea retaliates asymmetrically to South Korea’s closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Relisting would immediately impose on North Korea significant financial sanctions; loss of sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits such as the suit undertaken by the surviving relatives of Rev. Kim Dong-shik who was kidnapped by, and died while in the custody of North Korean agents; and require US Executive Directors at international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank to oppose North Korean membership.

One can debate whether the existing state sponsor of terrorism law is a good or wise one. If not, amend or rescind it. But it is the law of the land. And as Stanton’s report makes clear, it is hard to deny that North Korea meets the law’s criteria for a state sponsor of terrorism. The new legislation essentially demands that State stop ducking the issue and answer to the bill of particulars.

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Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff

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