Putting the North Korea terrorism designation in context

The flag of North Korea is seen in Geneva, Switzerland, June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy - RC1217F51A80
Editor's note:

We need to do more than just update the state sponsor of terrorism list, argues Daniel Byman. Rather, the use of a binary list—you’re either a sponsor or you’re not—is flawed.  A better approach would be to recognize the complexities of sponsorship today. This post originally appeared on Lawfare.

President Trump designated North Korea a sponsor of terrorism on Monday, returning it to the list of official state sponsors along with Iran, Sudan and Syria. In making his decision, the President noted: “In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.” He also denounced North Korea’s brutality and called for an end of its missile program.

The George W. Bush administration had removed North Korea in 2008 as part of a deal over the country’s nuclear program. The deal went south but North Korea remained off the list despite the ups and (mostly) downs of the U.S.-North Korea relationship. Trump in general has sought to ratchet up pressure on North Korea, and re-listing it is one tool for doing so.

The terrorism charge is ostensibly linked to the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February. North Korea probably was responsible—indeed, it’s hard to imagine who else would have done it. Terrorism experts like me might nitpick about using this particular to charge to justify relisting North Korea: we usually define terrorism as involving non-state actors such as al-Qaida, not state agents. But the U.S. government has long used the term “clandestine agents” in its definition of terrorism in order to include state actions that seem like terrorism. Thus the Qaddafi regime’s bombing of Pan Am 103, which involved Libyan intelligence operatives, counted as terrorism rather than an act of war.

The U.S. approach toward state sponsorship of terrorism, however, has many flaws. The first is inconsistency. The assassination justification, for example ignores that the killing of dissidents is not confined to a few state sponsors. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, for example, uses political murder as a tool to maintain power at home. Journalists, human rights advocates and opposition politicians are all in the crosshairs. In March of this year, a Russian lawmaker who criticized Putin was gunned down after defecting to Ukraine. There will be more.

In addition to inconsistency, it is hard to get off the state sponsor list. The government’s language on Sudan today is instructive. In the 1990s, Sudan was a flagrant sponsor of terror, hosting al-Qaida and even supporting attacks in the United States. It clearly deserved to be on the state sponsor list. Yet over time Sudan changed its behavior, expelling Bin Laden and moving away from terrorism. It even cut support for Hamas, which many regional governments have at times supported or hosted. In its most recent report, however, in the section listing Sudan as a sponsor of terrorism, the State Department pointed out that: “There also were no indications that the Sudanese government tolerated or assisted terrorist organizations within its borders in 2016” and that “Sudan is a cooperative partner of the United States on counterterrorism, despite its continued presence on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List.” This doesn’t sound much like a sponsor. However, once a country is listed it is hard to remove even if it does not support terrorism, and the list provides little incentive for partial or incomplete counterterrorism cooperation.

So why is Sudan on the list at all? Sudan is a gross human rights violator—“abysmal” according to Human Rights Watch. It attacks civilians in Darfur and other parts of the country, arrests and tortures opposition figures, and suppresses free speech among other violations. You name the human right and Sudan has probably violated it. Removing it from the state sponsor list would be a boost for the regime, helping them become a more normal member of the international community. I, for one, don’t really want to cut Khartoum slack. But that doesn’t mean it is currently sponsoring terrorism.

Perhaps even worse, some of the most egregious sponsors are not on the list at all. Pakistan has long aided a range of terrorist groups fighting against India in Kashmir and is a major sponsor of Taliban forces fighting the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. If you’re worried about American troops being targeted by terrorists, direct your ire at Islamabad, not Pyongyang. Venezuela was long a major supporter of the FARC. And I’ve written before with William McCants about how U.S. Gulf allies are often linked to terrorist groups, fostering sectarianism that boosts their legitimacy and enabling them to raise money, recruit or otherwise making them stronger. Successive administrations have resisted putting countries like Pakistan on the list because it hampers the administrations’ freedom of action and risks jeopardizing the counterterrorism cooperation Pakistan does provide. Ironically, because it’s so hard to get off the list, administrations are often reluctant to put states on the list in the first place. So we end up with a list that has both egregious sponsors and non-sponsors, while true sponsors or facilitating states get a pass.

We need to do more than just update the state sponsor list—swapping out say Pakistan for Sudan—though that would be a start. Rather, the use of a binary list—you’re either a sponsor or you’re not—is flawed.  A better approach would be to recognize the complexities of sponsorship today.  This needs to include not only egregious sponsors like Iran or Pakistan but also those committing sins of omission, when governments do little to stop terrorist fundraising, recruitment or transit. In addition, it should be far easier to get a state off the list and otherwise receive a reward, or at least less punishment, for good behavior. If we don’t make such changes, we’re stuck with a list that fosters the perception that it is being an enemy of the United States that matters, not whether a government truly sponsors terrorism.