Why North Korea Needs Relisting as a Terror-Sponsoring State

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.