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North Korea: A State Sponsor of Terrorism?


By Matt Sullivan

On October 22, 2015, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a subcommittee hearing on whether to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. This hearing is only a small part of a much-larger debate on how to deal with North Korea’s proliferation of WMD material as well as North Korea’s continued belligerence towards the United States, South Korea, and the international community. There are two components to the conversation about whether North Korea is a state-sponsor of terrorism, a legal one and a diplomatic one. Much of the debate has been focused on the legal component. First, what constitutes states sponsorship of terrorism must be defined. Then, it must be ascertained whether sufficient evidence demonstrates that North Korea has sponsored or facilitated terrorist activity.

So far, the main issue with reinstating North Korea on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism has revolved around whether North Korea can be legally classified as a state-sponsor of terrorism and to what extent. A Congressional report on North Korea’s terrorist activity states “According to the State Department, North Korea has not been conclusively linked to any terrorist acts since 1987.” This attitude is still apparent which was reflected by Hillary Johnston’s comments at the subcommittee hearing. Many of North Korea’s provocations, while violent, are state-vs.-state activities, and as such cannot legally be called terrorist activities.

However, since George Bush’s removal of North Korea from the list in 2008 some Members of Congress have been proponents for North Korea’s reinstatement as reflected by the recently passed Bill HR 1771 and the recent U.S. subcommittee hearing. One argument for placing North Korea back on the U.S. list is that North Korea has been known to transfer weapons and material to Syria and Iran, which are on the list of state-sponsors of terrorism. Since Syria and Iran have actively supported terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, evidence that suggests this type of relationship between North Korea, other state sponsors of terrorism, and terrorist organizations might have an effect on whether North Korea can be considered a state-sponsor of terrorism.

Besides the prospect of North Korean weapons transfers to terrorist organizations in the Middle East, another activity that might facilitate North Korea’s reinstatement is North Korea’s cyberattacks against civilian targets in the U.S. and South Korea. One of the most recent cyberattacks against American citizens was the attack on Sony in November 2014, which resulted in the disabling of Sony’s IT services, the release of internal emails, and the destruction of data. In December 2014, U.S. officials concluded that North Korea is responsible for this cyberattack. As shown during the subcommittee hearing on October 22, 2015, some U.S. officials have insisted that North Korea’s attacks on Sony are terrorist acts, and therefore is adequate causation for the restoration of North Korea’s state-sponsorship of terrorism status. However, as also reflected by State Department’s comments during the hearing, because the definitions and laws of terrorist activity and state-sponsorship of terrorism, especially in regards to cyber activity, remain vague and broad, whether North Korea’s cyber activity meets the criterion that would classify the 2014 cyberattacks as terrorist activity or terrorist-sponsored activity has remained open for debate.

The second part of the debate is much more abstract as it deals with the possible consequences of officially re-designating North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism. Questions that need to be accounted for include, what would the tangible and diplomatic effects be on North Korea and would these effects alter the DPRK leadership’s belligerent behavior?

First, if North Korea were to be designated as a state-sponsor of terrorism, a number of economic restrictions would go into effect as defined by section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act. According to the U.S. State Department, “the four main categories of sanctions resulting from designation under these authorities include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.”

However, many of the sanctions that would be applied to North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism are already in place. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, current sanctions include the prohibition of selling luxury goods, arms, military material and technology, and illicit and counterfeit goods. The Department of Treasury also “blocks the property and interests in property” of the North Korean government, government and Workers’ Party officials, and entities that support the government of North Korea.

As reflected during the recent Foreign Affairs House Committee hearing on North Korea, it is debatable whether these sanctions would have any significant effect on the DPRK economy. Due to this reason and the fact that China purportedly continues to smuggle and launder illicit goods and finances into North Korea, inflicting more sanctions against North Korea may only have limited success at altering the DPRK leadership’s behavior.

In addition there are diplomatic factors, which tend to be more symbolic, but still must be taken into account if there is a chance that the DPRK’s behavior will change as a result of North Korea’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism. It is important to note that designating North Korea on such a list only serves to punish them for belligerent behavior, but not necessarily incentivize good behavior. Thus the question is how will North Korea respond to punitive measures? There is little doubt that such an action as reinstating North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism will anger the North Korean regime.

According to a Congressional report evaluating a decision to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, there are several possible reactions. First, North Korea may withhold future peace talks with the United States unless the U.S. recants their action. Second, the DPRK regime may cancel or delay reforms that might otherwise liberalize their isolated economy.  Finally, in retaliation, North Korea may commence further provocation against South Korea, arresting South Korean goals of peninsular peace. In light of this evaluation, reinstating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism might slow diplomatic progress with North Korea, if the resulting sanctions fail to bring them to the table engage in more militaristic behavior against South Korea. On the other hand, as the Subcommittee Hearing indicates, re-designating North Korea on the list may demonstrate a renewed effort to confront North Korea’s belligerence and violations of international proliferation regulations.

Both the question of whether North Korea can be legally considered a state sponsor of terrorism, and as well as what the intended and unintended effects of reclassifying North Korea on the state-sponsorship of terrorism list remains ambivalent. As the United States continues its so-called ‘strategic patience’ policy with North Korea, more evidence may become apparent that might move the U.S. State Department in either direction. This may be the case, especially as the U.S. continues to define international rules in cyber security, which would indicate whether North Korea’s cyber attacks against South Korea and the U.S. should be considered terrorist acts.

Matt Sullivan has a BA in Political Science and International Studies and is an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. […] on the list (Iran, Syria, and Sudan). There have been two important components to the conversation:  legal considerations and diplomatic considerations. First, is it legally possible to call North Korea a State Sponsor of Terrorism? Second, if the […]


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