(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration says the sinking of a South Korean warship does not justify returning North Korea to the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states, but experts believe there are other good reasons for the administration to do so, including shipments of weapons allegedly destined for terrorists in the Middle East.
Just two months ago, agents for the Stalinist regime detained in South Korea admitted they had been sent there to assassinate the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected, Hwang Jang-yop, the former secretary of Kim Jong-il’s ruling Workers Party.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Monday the sinking last March of the Cheonan – which investigators attributed to a North Korean torpedo attack – was in the administration’s judgment “not an act of international terrorism and by itself would not trigger placing North Korea on the state sponsor of terrorism list.”
In a subsequent written statement, Crowley added, “As a general matter, a state military attack on a military target would not be considered an act of international terrorism.”
Pyongyang has denied responsibility for the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. Seoul is looking for a strong U.N. Security Council response to the attack, but China has not accepted the findings of the South Korean-convened international investigation team. Russia also has been hesitant.
While Beijing is able to shield its closest ally in the Security Council, returning North Korea to the list of terror-sponsors would not require China’s approval.
Crowley said the process of reviewing North Korea’s status was continuing and “never-ending.”
“We continue to evaluate information that is consistently coming into us regarding North Korean activities, and we will not hesitate to take action if we have information that North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of terrorism,” he said.
North Korea taken off terror-sponsor list
North Korea was first placed on the terror-sponsor list in 1987, two months after its agents bombed a Korean Airlines plane over the Indian Ocean, killing 115 passengers and crew.
The George W. Bush administration delisted it in October 2008, meeting a longstanding North Korean demand at a pivotal moment in long-running negotiations aimed at shutting down its nuclear weapons programs. (Shortly after the step was taken, the “six-party” nuclear talks stalled – again – and 18 months later, the process remains deadlocked.)
In the years leading up to the delisting, annual State Department terrorism reports stated that North Korea “was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts” since the 1987 bombing of flight KAL 858.
When the intention to remove Pyongyang was announced in June 2008, the State Department said that the president had certified to Congress – in line with statutory requirements – that North Korea “has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”
Allegations soon emerged calling into question both the North Korean assurance, and the State Department’s assertion that it had not supported terror since 1987. They include:
-- Claims that North Korea in late 2006 and early 2007 tried to smuggle weapons to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.
-- Claims that North Korea provides weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas. Several shipments of North Korean-origin weapons, including rockets, bound for Iran and believed to be destined for Hezbollah and Hamas were intercepted during 2009. They included those found onboard a ship searched in Dubai last July and those discovered on a plane in Thailand last December.
-- Reports of cooperation between North Korea and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), both in coordinating support for Hezbollah and in the field of ballistic missile development.
-- Alleged North Korean nuclear collaboration with Syria, exposed after Israel bombed a remote nuclear facility in the Arab country in September 2007.
The reported North Korean activities would amount to supporting terrorism on several levels: The LTTE, Hezbollah and Hamas are all designated as foreign terrorist organizations; the IRGC has been under U.S. sanctions since 2007 for support of terrorism and proliferation activities; and Iran and Syria are two of the four countries remaining on terror-sponsor list (the others are Sudan and Cuba).
“While the Cheonan attack does not fulfill the requirements for re-designating North Korea as a state sponsors of terrorism, nonetheless, Pyongyang should be placed on the list for three reasons,” Heritage Foundation scholar Bruce Klingner said Monday.
“Israel asserted that North Korean weapons seized in Thailand [in December] were headed for Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah; South Korea [in April] arrested two North Korean agents who admitted that Pyongyang ordered the assassination of defector Hwang Jang-yop; and South Korea identified North Korea as being responsible for last year’s cyberterrorist attack on South Korean and U.S. computer systems, including those of the White House, Secret Service, Department of State, and Department of Defense,” he said.
Re-listing North Korea would send strong signal
Terror-sponsor designation carries sanctions, including a ban on arms-related exports and sales, controls over exports of dual-use items, prohibitions on economic assistance, and a range of financial restrictions.
Returning North Korea to the list would not have significant implications on the sanctions front, as the U.S. has restrictions in place relating to its nuclear tests, proliferation and human rights abuses.
But it would reinstate a legislative requirement that the president oppose loans to North Korea by international financial agencies.
It would also send a strong signal to a regime which pushed for years to be removed from the list. Pyongyang has threatened that any punishment for the Cheonan sinking would spark war.
When the Bush administration removed North Korea from the list, then Sen. Barack Obama, running for the White House, called the step “an appropriate response, as long as there is a clear understanding that if North Korea fails to follow through there will be immediate consequences.”
In mid-2009, after a series of North Korean provocations including a nuclear weapon and long-range missile tests. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the possibility of relisting North Korea, but in a letter to Congress in February President Obama said North Korea “does not meet the statutory criteria” to be returned to the list.
Three months later, the findings into the sinking of the Cheonan brought fresh calls for the step to be taken.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, sent a letter to Clinton asking her to consider a relisting. He cited both the Cheonan incident and arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas – which he called the equivalent of giving “matches and gasoline to known arsonists.”
In a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report published shortly before the 2008 delisting, CRS Asian affairs specialist Larry Niksch argued that “[r]emoving North Korea likely will encourage Pyongyang to continue and possibly expand its support for terrorist groups and other state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East.
“North Korea’s expansion of these activities since 2000 appears to constitute a major threat to U.S. national security policy interests in the Middle East,” Niksch said.
“Relatedly, the United States will no longer have the terrorism support list as a negotiating lever if it ever decided to address North Korean activities in the Middle East in negotiations with Pyongyang.”