Pop quiz: Is North Korea a terrorist state? Yes or no?

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk3By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com

WASHINGTON ― Here’s a question people here keep asking: Is North Korea a terrorist state?

Forget about the missile shots. They’ve all landed in the sea and harmed no one. What about the nuclear tests? They dislocated some rocks deep underground but were otherwise harmless.

So what does it take to persuade the U.S. State Department to list North Korea, again, as a “state sponsor of terrorism”?

That’s been the topic of heated debate ever since the State Department, on orders of President George W. Bush, dropped North Korea from its list of terrorist nations in 2008. That was at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who’d been listening to U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, talking up the deals he’d made.

Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill negotiated a deal whereby North Korea would accept a verification plan after being delisted as a state sponsor of terrorism. / AFP
Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill negotiated a deal whereby North Korea would accept a verification plan after being delisted as a state sponsor of terrorism. / AFP

How could North Korea be considered a “terrorist” state, goes the logic, after agreeing to a complicated schedule for gradually giving up its nukes in return for vast quantities of aid? Of course, North Korea did not begin to abide by any such deal while expanding its nuclear program, including the ability to detonate warheads with highly enriched uranium as well as plutonium.

The removal of North Korea from the State Department’s terrorism list was a political decision, heavily influenced by pro-North sympathizers in the U.S. Now the U.S. hesitates to return North Korea to the list, waiting for the North to be seen as clearly sponsoring an act of terrorism such as the bombing of Korean Air flight 858 over the Andaman Sea in 1987 in which all 115 passengers and crew members died – the episode that got it on the list in the first place.

Joshua Stanton, who runs a website on North Korean issues, summarizes the arguments for returning North Korea to the list in his newly published “Arsenal of Terror: North Korea, State Sponsor of Terrorism.” It is, he concludes, “past time for the Secretary of State…to recognize that North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

The book, published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, headquartered in Washington, runs through an extraordinary list of offenses that struck stark raving terror in the hearts and minds of thousands of victims, their relatives and friends plus thousands more living in fear that the same could happen to them.

What about the transfer of arms to terrorists? How about the sale of rockets and missiles to Hizbullah and Hamas, both dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Assassination attempts?

And do the sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island off North Korea’s southwest coast in 2010 count as terrorism? Or were these events, in which all told 50 people died, “acts of war” – a separate category from “terrorism”?

Stanton, a lawyer who served in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Korea, lays out a case based on international law, precedent, evidence and history. So doing, he takes the State Department to task for applying differing definitions depending on the mood of the moment and the whims of politicos. His report finds not only the department’s “standards are vague and inconsistent” but also its “reporting on terrorism has not always conformed to these standards.”

What Stanton does not say is that Chris Hill, when he took control of the State Department’s Korea desk as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, got rid of veteran Korea specialists who cast doubts about North Korea ever abandoning its nuclear program. Some of them, free of diplomatic constraints not to talk openly, go on publicly analyzing the North Korean threat.

Now, eight years after North Korea’s removal from the list of terrorist states, how could anyone not regard repeated vows to devastate not only Seoul but New York and Washington in nuclear attacks as anything but the madness of a terrorist state? Ok, such stuff may be rhetoric, but when someone points a gun at you and promises to kill you, that can be terrifying.

And then there’s North Korea’s record on human rights, the torture and execution of thousands of political foes – crimes against humanity that pro-North advocates deride as false or dismiss as internal issues, unverifiable and none of our business. Oh, and North Korea’s cyber attacks on South Korean agencies, on mass media, on banks, on global positioning systems add to the litany of complaints even if I personally don’t see a cyber attack as endangering my life.

If any country deserves the terrorist label, Stanton believes, it is North Korea. The argument for restoring North Korea as a member of the global club of “terrorist states” appears irrefutable when you consider that Iran remains on the list even after agreeing not to go on developing nuclear warheads.

Fine, but just one problem: does anyone believe relisting North Korea would do one thing to persuade the North to give up its evil ways? That question goes unanswered amid chapter and verse on why North Korea qualifies, by any standards, as a terrorist state.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Northeast Asia for decades. He’s at [email protected].