Sorry, But North Korea Isn’t a State Sponsor of Terrorism

And the State Department’s old list of bad guys needs a makeover.

Daily Life In Pyongyang
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - APRIL 02: Propaganda mural painting is seen outside People(degrees)?s Palace of Culture on April 2, 2011 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Pyongyang is the capital city of North Korea and the population is about 2,500,000. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

On Friday, Dec. 19, the FBI declared that it “has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible” for the purported hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Soon after, President Barack Obama warned, “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.” Given the relatively meager leverage that the United States — at least unilaterally — has over North Korea, there are precious few practical response options that would deter future comparable malicious actions. According to a senior administration officials, one option under consideration is placing North Korea back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, from where it was removed in 2008. Those included on the list are, “Countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

A small problem with such a designation is that North Korea simply is not a state-sponsor of terrorism. As the latest State Department Country Reports on Terrorism explicitly stated: “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” The North Korean sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010 was deemed a violation of the 1953 armistice agreement, but was also declared by a State Department spokesperson to have been “a provocative action but one taken by the military or the state against the military of another state. That, in our view, does not constitute an act of international terrorism.” Thus, by putting it back on the terrorism list, North Korea would be proportionally responded to by reclassifying its government for undertaking a behavior that the United States acknowledges it does not actually do.

Incidentally, as part of its efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations last week, the White House also decided to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism — a list Havana has resided on since 1982. Obama justified this review by noting: “At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.” Like North Korea, Cuba is not financing or supporting international terrorism in any way. Again, the latest Country Reports on Terrorism stated: “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.” (Another country that has inexplicably been on the list every year since 1993 is Sudan, which is remarkably described as “a generally cooperative counterterrorism partner.”)

The fact that both countries do not meet the specific criteria to be included on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list highlights the meaninglessness of this outdated policy tool. The list is increasingly irrelevant to the causes and conditions of international terrorism, which are more a matter of terror safe havens (think Pakistan, which is not on the list) that exist where the requisite political will — as well as intelligence and policing capacity — are sorely lacking. Or, the growing prevalence of international jihadist terrorists who become motivated and trained while participating in domestic civil wars — as has been the case for most internationally-focused terrorists over the past four decades. The list could be eliminated since the sanctions and arms export bans that it triggers are already covered by other legislation (notice how U.S.-North Korea relations did not change after 2008?). Or, it could be reformed in light of the changing nature of international terrorism, as Brooking’s Daniel Byman expertly explained in 2008.

Rather than misapplying this outdated punishment against countries that the United States has non-terrorism-related disagreements with, an entirely new designation is necessary. I propose the “Unacceptables List.” This category would cover all foreign governments whose actions U.S. officials routinely deride as “unacceptable,” but then do very little in response to prevent or deter those actions from reoccurring. And there’s a simple way to go about it: Rather than create an elaborate and costly interagency review for designating countries, once officials or spokespersons have described a particular country as engaging in unacceptable behavior a certain number of times in a certain period of time, it makes the Unacceptables List.

This would provide diplomatically interesting results. For example, using the State Department search engine, the top 10 countries for whom “unacceptable” was most often used in conjunction with since the start of the Obama administration: Syria (147), Iran (118), North Korea (115), Israel (87), Pakistan (83), Russia (78), Egypt (77), China (74), Afghanistan (66), and Iraq (63). The number of phrase-country pairings varied slightly over the past six years, so the Unacceptables List might need to be revamped at two-year increments. Any country that falls below the top 10 threshold level during the prior two years will be removed, only to be replaced by new wrongdoers.

The Unacceptables List may appear to be an arbitrary and hollow classification, but that is the point. The United States must be unafraid to castigate its adversaries and allies for repeatedly engaging in behaviors that are needlessly aggressive and destabilizing against its neighbors, or that wantonly cause harm to their own populations in violation of their basic human rights. Rather than dusting off the archaic and symbolic State Sponsors of Terrorism option — created in December 1979 to deal with the terrorism challenge in that era — either simply loudly condemn those adversaries and allies outright, or else develop yet another diplomatic shaming designation. But certainly don’t go on pretending that adding countries to lists or labeling their harmful actions as unacceptable achieves much of anything.

Feng Li/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.