Officially the State Department is headquartered in Washington, but every so often — far too often — there come these moments when State seems so out of touch that it might as well be operating on Neptune. So it goes with the question of whether to put North Korea back on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism — to which the the instant answer from State ought to be yes, yes, YES.
Instead, like an ant circumnavigating an elephant, State is examining the proposition (yet again), having just missed a legal deadline for telling Congress whether Kim Jong Un's North Korea meets the criteria to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. On Thursday national security adviser H.R. McMaster told the press that listing North Korea is an "option" which President Trump's cabinet is considering "as part of the overall strategy on North Korea."
Just how much considering remains to be done? McMaster himself mentioned as "clearly an act of terrorism that fits in with a range of other actions" North Korea's assassination with VX nerve agent of Kim Jong Un's half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, this past February in a Malaysian airport. But McMaster remained coy on whether, in the judgment of America's diplomats, the lethal use of WMD in a commercial airport would suffice to land North Korea back on the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states. He said only, " you will hear more about that soon, I think."
This equivocation comes as President Trump embarks on a 12-day trip to Asia, in which North Korea strategy will loom large — and a complex mission it will be, requiring a mix of soft power and hardball, with stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. After decades of disastrous U.S. policy toward North Korea, including failed nuclear deals under Presidents Clinton and Bush, and eight years of passivity dolled up as "strategic patience" under President Obama, the margin for error in North Korea policy has greatly dwindled, and the risks have soared.
But if there's a simple, low-cost no-brainer policy move waiting to be made, it is to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The sooner, the better.
It's true that relisting North Korea would be largely symbolic; it's unlikely that the related penalties would inflict any more pain than that imposed by the current sanctions. But it would be an important piece of symbolism, for reasons even deeper than the obvious value of reconnecting the State Department with the realities on Planet Earth.
It's important for the basic reason that North Korea should never have been taken off the list of terror-sponsoring states in the first place. The U.S. designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1988, after North Korean agents in 1987 blew up a South Korean airliner over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people on board. For a host of solid reasons, including the abduction of Japanese citizens, ties to terrorist groups, the harboring of terrorists and the development of WMD that could be acquired by terrorists, North Korea stayed on the list for 20 years.
Then, in June, 2008, in a desperate bid to save an intrinsically rotten and disintegrating 2007 Six-Party nuclear deal with North Korea, President Bush notified Congress that he was rescinding North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, and lifting the application to North Korea of the Trading with the Enemy Act. This was not because North Korea's regime had abjured terror. Rather, it was a sop wanted by Pyongyang, and it was provided by the U.S. in hope that favors would in good faith be returned. The announcement from the Bush White House made that quite clear, in a fact sheet that listed as the next item: "These actions were taken following North Korea's submission of a declaration of its nuclear programs, which will now be subject to verification."
As we now know, Pyongyang made a complete mockery of verification. North Korea pocketed various concessions gained at the bargaining table, including its escape from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states, and carried on with an accelerating nuclear program. The 2007 nuclear deal collapsed as Bush was on his way of office in 2008. North Korea welcomed the Obama administration with a second nuclear test in May, 2009, (the first was in 2006) and in 2010 unveiled facilities for uranium enrichment — a program which it had previously denied. There followed three more North Korean nuclear tests on Obama's watch, one in 2013 and two in 2016, along with a plethora of missile tests. Now the Trump administration faces the problem of how to deal with a North Korean regime that is honing ICBMs and nuclear warheads, and in September tested what it plausibly claimed was a hydrogen bomb.
The Bush favors to North Korea were folly; far from cajoling good behavior from North Korea, they underscored the message that the U.S. could be bullied; that nuclear extortion will work. That message needs to be erased.
Obama should have retracted whatever he could. At the very least, his State Department should have immediately put North Korea back on the list of terror-sponsoring states, where it belongs. He did not. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry gave North Korea a pass, for eight years — turning out statements exonerating North Korea of terrorist-sponsoring activities. Chalk up a victory on that score for North Korea.
It's time for Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to end this particular run of folly. Redesignating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism is something the U.S. could do easily, swiftly and with no need to wheedle the consent of the erstwhile international community, or a United Nations Security Council on which Beijing and Moscow run interference for Pyongyang.
If the State Department, in its meticulous pondering of legal statutes, is concerned that North Korea hasn't engaged in quite enough terror-sponsoring activity in recent times to qualify for the the list, administration officials could usefully consult Joshua Stanton's 100-page report, titled "Arsenal of Terror," subtitled "North Korea: State Sponsor of Terrorism," published in 2015 by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Stanton goes into painstaking and persuasive detail on the law, the facts and the reasons for relisting North Korea.
If that still does not satisfy, then it's time to ask whether, to give North Korea its due, the State Department needs a category more useful than "State Sponsors of Terrorism" — which, in this era of global terrorism has somehow dwindled, according to the State Department, to a list of only three countries: Iran, Sudan and Syria. Perhaps there should be a listing for States Based Entirely on Terror. North Korea's totalitarian regime would surely qualify, both at home and abroad — with its record of terrorizing its own people, its assassinations, its weapons traffic with terrorists and rogue states, its refusal to this day to account for its spree of kidnappings, its cyberthreats, its pioneering role in the 21st century as a practitioner of nuclear extortion, and its free-wheeling threats of nuclear strikes against the U.S., South Korea and Japan.
In trying to craft a strategy for coping with North Korea, there may well be complex matters that take time to weave together. This should not be one of them. Here's a clarifying way to look at it: There's no North Korea "strategy" worth beans that would preclude relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. So get on with it.