North Korea Back on the Terrorism List. What took so long?

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Yesterday President Donald Trump put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. (The country was originally listed in 1987 and removed in 2008.) Relisting will impose additional financial sanctions; remove sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits, making it possible for such suits as the one undertaken by the surviving relatives of Reverend Kim Dong-shik, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents and died in their custody; and require US executive directors at international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank to oppose North Korean membership. In the wake of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam with a chemical weapon in a public space, one is tempted to ask, "what took so long?"

In the wake of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam with a chemical weapon in a public space, one is tempted to ask, "what took so long?"

Joshua Stanton documents the problem of using the state sponsors of terrorism law in a superb report, Arsenal of Terror, for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea (full disclosure: I'm on the Board). Over time US law has grown like Topsy with all kinds of inadvertent inconsistencies, gaps, and contradictions. There is no standard definition of "international terrorism" or "support." But more importantly, the US implementation of the law has been highly politicized; in particular the delisting in 2008 appears to have been motivated largely by the State Department's desire to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea before President George W. Bush left office. During the intervening years, State Department obfuscation in the face of North Korean provocations eventually encouraged a restive Congress to consider legislation to tie State's hands last year.

As I wrote in an earlier post, one can debate whether the existing state sponsor of terrorism law is a good or wise one. If it is not, amend or rescind it. But it is the law of the land. Given North Korean behavior it is hard to argue that North Korea does not meet the law's criteria for a state sponsor of terrorism. And given the dearth of Trump administration legislative achievements, governance through executive fiat is not surprising. The last nine months have witnessed the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the death of Otto Warmbier, and a lot of heated rhetoric. Given the elasticity of the relevant legal terms and the politicization of implementation, that it has taken this long to put North Korea back on the list suggests that either the Trump administration was hoping for some kind of diplomatic opening, or it is simply inept.

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