Since the Bush administration lifted North Korea’s state-sponsor of terrorism (SST) designation in 2008 – in response to progress in nuclear talks that quickly evaporated – Pyongyang has been implicated in several incidents which some lawmakers and others argued would meet the definition of terrorism under U.S. law.
They include plots to assassinate defectors and shipments of weapons allegedly headed for terrorists in the Middle East.
President Obama said last month that re-designating North Korea was under consideration, following the FBI’s determination that it was behind the damaging Sony hack. White House press secretary Josh Earnest reaffirmed Monday that the possibility was being reviewed.
Under U.S. law, SST designation requires evidence of recent support for international terrorism.
On June 26, 2008, President Bush certified to Congress that North Korea satisfied the criteria for removal: It had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period; and it had provided assurances that it would not support acts of international terrorism in the future. Pyongyang’s removal from the list took effect 45 days later.
Over the years since, a number of North Korean actions prompted calls for the move to be reversed. They included:
--A series of mid-2009 provocations including a nuclear weapon test and long-range missile launches. But in a letter to Congress early the following year Obama said North Korea “does not meet the statutory criteria” to be returned to the list.
--The July 2009 discovery during a ship search in the United Arab Emirates of North Korean weapons, heading for Iran and believed to be ultimately destined for Hezbollah and Hamas, both U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations. Five months later Thai authorities found 35 tons of North Korean weapons on a plane in Bangkok, again believed to be destined for Hezbollah and Hamas.
--The 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship. An international inquiry blamed North Korea for the incident, in which 46 sailors died. Responding to lawmakers’ calls to redesignate North Korea, the State Department said it had determined the ship sinking was “not an act of international terrorism and by itself would not trigger placing North Korea on the state sponsor of terrorism list.”
--The 2010 attempted assassination by North Korean agents of the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected to the South, Hwang Jang-yop.
--The 2012 jamming by North Korea of GPS navigation signals that affected hundreds of commercial flights heading to and from South Korean airports.
Under the United States Code, terrorism is defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
When Bush removed North Korea from the list, then-Sen. Obama – running for president – called the move “a modest step forward” and “an appropriate response, as long as there is a clear understanding that if North Korea fails to follow through there will be immediate consequences.”
By contrast his Republican presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), voiced skepticism.
During the next presidential election campaign, when Obama’s GOP rival Mitt Romney called North Korea an Obama foreign policy failure, the White House hit back, saying the administration had been much tougher than its predecessor.
“Under the previous administration,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters at the time, “North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions.”
The recent Sony cyberattack – which included threats of 9/11-style terror attacks against movie theaters – brought calls from several U.S. lawmakers for North Korea to be returned to the blacklist. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said this week she plans to introduce legislation calling for the step.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), raised the matter in a Dec. 19 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, and again on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Jan. 4, when he also took issue with Obama’s description of the Sony hack as “cyber-vandalism.”
“Vandalism is when you break a window,” Menendez told CNN. “Terrorism is when you destroy a building. And what happened here is that North Korea landed a virtual bomb on Sony’s parking lot, and ultimately had real consequences to it as a company and to many individuals who work there.”
Would it make a difference?
The State Department has pointed out in recent weeks that re-designation will not have “a huge practical effect,” since sanctions imposed for other reasons were not lifted when North Korea was removed from the list in 2008.
(A June 26, 2008 State Department fact sheet acknowledged that the move was “largely symbolic,” since sanctions relating to the regime’s first nuclear test two years earlier, proliferation activities and human rights violations remained in place.)
Still, removal from the blacklist was a high priority for the regime.
Although it had been designated since 1988 – after its agents bombed a South Korean airliner, killing 115 people – during the nuclear standoff that re-erupted in 2002 the matter took on new importance as a potential point of leverage.
As early as late 2003, Kim Jong-il made removal from the SST list a condition for freezing his nuclear program. Bush rejected the proposal.
At Monday’s White House briefing, Earnest took issue with a suggestion that the list does not hold much weight
“That is a list that you don’t want to be on, and it’s a list that we take very seriously as we formulate a foreign policy that protects the national security interest of the United States.”
Current SSTs are Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba. The latter’s designation is now under review, as part of the administration’s new policy towards Havana.