Why the State Department won’t put North Korea back on the terror list

Why the State Department won’t put North Korea back on the terror list

North Korea announced today that it was breaking off diplomatic relations with the South, one day after South Korea imposed severe trade restrictions on Pyongyang in response to the March sinking of a South Korea ship, the Cheonan.

The news broke as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was getting ready to depart Beijing for Seoul, South Korea, where she is expected to back President Lee Myung-bak‘s demand that Pyongyang "pay a price" for its actions. Clinton’s five-day visit to China for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue has been largely overshadowed by the crisis on the Korean peninsula, with Beijing calling for calm in the face of growing pressure from Washington and Seoul.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, calls are heating up for the Obama administration to take punitive measures like putting North Korea back on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But the Obama administration is clearly signaling it does not intend to do that any time soon. The calculation is that the listing, which administration officals see as having been overly politicized by George W. Bush‘s administration, is more trouble than it’s worth.

"With respect to … the state-sponsor of terrorism list, the United States will apply the law as the facts warrant," Clinton said in Beijing Monday. "The legislation, as you know, sets out specific criteria for the Secretary of State to base a determination… If the evidence warrants, the Department of State will take action."

What Clinton is saying here is that the original reasons that North Korea was put on the list, when they blew up half the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 and then bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, are not enough to justify putting Pyongyang back on the list today. Nor are the other reasons that the State Department has included in reports as recently as 2007 good enough for relisting now, namely that North Korea still hasn’t answered for 12 Japanese abductees and still harbors members of the Japanese Red Army.

In fact, that 2007 report evens says that "The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987."

Whether you believe that or not, the sinking of the Cheonan falls outside that definition.

"I don’t see how you can call this a terrorist act," said Michael Auslin, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "I think it’s an act of war but it’s not a terrorist act. Putting them back on there would just show that we really don’t have any other options. I think it was a mistake to take them off, but I don’t think this is how you put them back on."

Leading Asia experts lament that the process was reduced to a political negotiation at the very end of the Bush administration, when then North Korea negotiator Chris Hill agreed to delist Pyongyang in exchange for North Korean promises to keep alive the Six Party Talks on their nuclear program. Those promises have gone largely unfulfilled.

When the delisting actually happened in October 2008, the State Department stated that North Korea "had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and the provision by the government of assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future."

Many Asia experts support putting North Korea back on the list, but they don’t see the Cheonan sinking as a justification for doing it.

"I actually think it makes perfect sense to relist North Korea; it just has nothing to do with the Cheonan incident," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a northeast Asia focused think tank. "The incident just provides an opportunity to reevaluate the politically driven decision to delist them in the first place."

That decision was meant to cement progress made by the Bush administration as represented by a September 2005 declaration whereby North Korea promised to abandon all nuclear weapons programs and a February 2007 agreement on implementation.  Japan was so upset, based on their domestic imperative to keep the abductee issue alive, that then Prime Minister Taro Aso reportedly called Bush that morning to beg him not to do it.

But after being delisted, Pyongyang just waited out the Bush administration and then started a series of provocative actions that eventually led to the Obama administration basically abandoning attempts to engage North Korea altogether.

That’s not to say there aren’t arguments to be made that North Korea is indeed still currently a state sponsor of terror. For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Pyongyang this month of funneling weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas through Burma, an allegation that has not been confirmed by the U.S. side.

But the Obama administration isn’t making those arguments. That job is left to congressmen such as Gary Ackerman, D-NY, and Sam Brownback, R-KS. "Through the sales of ballistic missiles, artillery rockets and conventional arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, State Department-designated foreign terrorist organizations, Pyongyang is fueling two additional potentially disastrous confrontations," Ackerman said.

Overall, the making of the listing into a political football is exactly the reason that the Obama administration doesn’t want to wade into those waters again.

"They saw the way this was handled in the Bush administration and they don’t want to go there," said Flake. "It’s a lot easier to do then to undo. This is a tool that should not be overly politicized, if we want to put more sanctions on North Korea, we can."