by Paul R. Pillar
President Trump’s placement of North Korea on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism continues a manipulation, by several administrations, of this list for reasons other than terrorism. Neither an earlier removal of North Korea from this list (by the George W. Bush administration in 2008) nor Trump’s return of North Korea to the list this week had anything to do with any changes in North Korea’s conduct as far as terrorism is concerned. The Bush administration’s delisting was part of an unsuccessful effort to do something about Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The Trump administration has seized upon relisting as supposedly another form of pressure on North Korea, with the concern again centered on nuclear weapons.
Rationales for the newest move show what a stretch it is from the criteria, defined by statute, for placement on the state sponsor list. Some defenders of the move refer to North Korean actions three decades ago. Pyongyang really was doing international terrorism in the 1980s, mainly aimed against South Korea. It was responsible for a bomb in Rangoon that killed several visiting members of the South Korean cabinet in 1983. It planted a bomb on a Korean Air civilian airliner in 1987, killing more than 100 people. But North Korea got out of international terrorism in subsequent years, with the hope of gaining some degree of international political rehabilitation. In terms of the legal standards for remaining on the state sponsor list, the delisting of North Korea in 2008 was overdue.
A more recent North Korean-perpetrated incident was the assassination in Malaysia this February of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. This killing, performed clandestinely on foreign soil, technically meets the definition of international terrorism. And it is yet another example of the Pyongyang regime’s repugnant and brutal behavior. But it had nothing to do with any campaign of terrorism that poses a threat to anyone other than Kim’s own family or those in the regime whom he perceives as a possible threat to his rule.
Other countries besides North Korea have been the subject of misuse of the state sponsor list. The Reagan administration took Iraq off the list as part of its tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. The George H.W. Bush administration returned Iraq to the list after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Neither move had to do with any change in Iraqi behavior regarding international terrorism. Cuba remained on the list, for reasons involving anti-Castro domestic U.S. politics, long after it had ceased doing anything that could be construed as international terrorism.
Barack Obama made more of an honest effort than most other U.S. presidents to respect the legal criteria associated with the state sponsor list. The belated removal of Cuba from the list was part of this. The Obama administration reportedly considered relisting North Korea but refrained because it could not identify a sound legal rationale for doing so.
Other administrations’ misuse of the state sponsor list has been a sloppy way of expressing disapproval of regimes they didn’t like. The sloppiness hides how such regimes may exhibit multiple forms of objectionable conduct, each posing its own problems and each of which can be addressed through different means. Blurring everything together into a miasma of undifferentiated rogue-state behavior undermines the possibility of using diplomacy and carefully crafted incentives to ameliorate any one form of objectionable conduct, be it terrorism or weapons proliferation or something else, even if the United States can’t solve every problem it has with a regime.
Misusing the list of state sponsors of terrorism sends the message that the United States does not care all that much about terrorism itself. It undermines the credibility of efforts that really are focused on countering terrorism. Most fundamentally, it diminishes the incentive of the targeted regime to get out or stay out of international terrorism. If the North Korean regime sees that it is going to be branded a state sponsor of terrorism regardless of what it is doing terrorism-wise, it has that much less disincentive against sliding back into the reprehensible behavior it exhibited in the 1980s.
This is one form of poor statesmanship in which Trump is not alone. His move regarding the state sponsor list indicates a deficit in careful and creative thinking about ways to counter the North Korean nuclear challenge.
Photo: Secretary of Defense James Mattis visits the DMZ.