Deadline Looms for Tillerson Decision on North Korea Terror Listing

By Patrick Goodenough | October 25, 2017 | 4:25am EDT
Kim Jong-un visited the elite Red Flag Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang this month to mark the 70th anniversary of its founding. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

( – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has until next Tuesday to inform Congress whether North Korea meets the criteria to be relisted as a state-sponsor of terrorism – a step which the regime has already indicated it will view as tantamount to a declaration of war.

Ahead of the deadline – 90 days after President Trump signed into law sanctions legislation that incorporates the requirement – lawmakers are stepping up calls for Tillerson to determine that North Korea does deserve to be returned to the list, almost a decade after President George W. Bush removed it.

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which imposed new sanctions on North Korea, Iran and Russia, included a provision sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) requiring the North Korea determination.

“It was a mistake for North Korea to be removed from the list of state sponsors nine years ago,” Cruz said when Trump signed the legislation, “and the rogue regime in Pyongyang has only grown more hostile toward America and our allies, more engaged in illicit proliferation around the world, and more committed to destabilizing the Asia-Pacific region ever since.”

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed by a 394-1 vote a similar measure, authored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas).

When Cruz introduced his bill last spring, the North Korean foreign ministry called the move “a provocation tantamount to declaration of war.”

The ministry said it was laughable that elements in the U.S. – “the mastermind of all forms of terrorism worldwide” – would label other countries as terror sponsors.

Bush removed North Korea from the list in 2008, in response to signs of progress in talks aimed at shutting down Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. But the progress was short-lived, and over the ensuing years lawmakers have periodically called for a restoration of the terror-sponsor designation. (Today only Iran, Syria and Sudan are listed.)

The most recent incidents cited by advocates for relisting were the death in June of American student Otto Warmbier, just days after being released from a North Korean prison and returned home in a coma; and the death last February of Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, who died after being exposed at Kuala Lumpur international airport to the deadly nerve agent VX.

“Since North Korea was removed from the state-sponsors of terrorism list in 2008, the Kim regime has repeatedly perpetrated or supported heinous acts, the most recent example of which was the illegitimate detention, murderous mistreatment, and tragic death of Otto Warmbier,” more than a dozen House members wrote Tillerson in a letter Tuesday.

The group, led by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), also cited Kim Jong-nam’s assassination and other attempted assassinations, kidnappings of foreign citizens, weapons sales to terrorist, and cyber-attacks.

“The world looks to the United States to lead in responding to the dangerous nuclear belligerence of Kim Jong-un,” they wrote. “Duly relisting his regime as a state-sponsor of terrorism is an important component of this leadership, as it will further the case for our diplomatic and economic isolation campaign, and underscore the importance of cutting ties with North Korea.”

The Stalinist regime was first designated in 1988, after its agents bombed a South Korean airliner, killing 115 people.


Countries designated as terror-sponsors are targeted with economic sanctions including a ban on arms-related exports and sales, restrictions on exports of “dual-use” items, and prohibitions on economic assistance. The U.S. also opposes loans by international financial institutions to listed countries.

Legislation signed by President Trump in August gives the secretary of state 90 days to tell Congress whether North Korea meets the criteria to be returned to the state-sponsors of terrorism list. (Image:

Criteria for delisting includes a determination that the country has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period; and an assurance from the country that it will not do so in the future.

Bush told Congress on June 26, 2008 that those criteria had been met regarding North Korea, and delisting took effect 45 days later.

The move was widely viewed as a concession to Kim Jong-il, who had made it a priority demand during talks over the nuclear standoff. As early as 2003 he offered to freeze nuclear programs in return for delisting and fuel aid, but Bush rebuffed the offer.

In North Korea’s case, delisting did not have a big practical effect, since sanctions relating to the regime’s first nuclear test two years earlier and human rights violations remained intact.

Still, Cruz in a recent New York Times op-ed arguing for relisting said that apart from limitations placed on terror-sponsors, “the label serves as a formal indication from the United States that any positive development of diplomatic relations is contingent on abandoning the financing and support of terrorism.”

Other incidents since 2008 cited by advocates for relisting North Korea include:

--Two discoveries in 2009 – on an aircraft in Thailand and a ship in UAE – of North Korean weapons believed to be destined for the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas.

--The 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship, and deaths of 46 sailors.

--A foiled 2010 plot to assassinate the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected, former Workers Party secretary Hwang Jang-yop.

--North Korea’s jamming in 2012 of GPS navigation signals that affected hundreds of commercial flights approaching and leaving South Korean airports.

In 2014, the FBI determined that Pyongyang was behind a damaging cyberattack on Sony Pictures. President Obama indicated that he was considering returning North Korea to the terror-sponsor list, but the step was not taken.

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