When word came out that the president was about to rename North Korea to the short list (which currently includes Iran, Syria, and Sudan) of “state sponsors of terrorism,” a witty colleague explained: “It’s an escalation on the threat matrix from ‘your leader is short and fat.’”
Given the regular exchange of personal insults in which Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have indulged themselves, it’s not that hard to believe that the former seized on the “state sponsor of terrorism” designation as just another stick with which to beat the latter. But the underlying law and diplomacy of the gesture are, well, complicated.
When George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in 2008 as part of a carrots-and-sticks effort to get the renegade country to curtail its nuclear program, Pyongyang had by any definition qualified as a major state sponsor of terrorism, as North Korea expert Joseph DeThomas reminds us:
[I]n Pyongyang’s previous campaign of state sponsored terror, the targets were South Korean civilians and officials in large numbers. This included a bomb attack in Rangoon that murdered a significant part of the ROK Cabinet and the bombing of a South Korean civilian airliner killing 115 people in the 1980s.
North Korea doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore. The ostensible rationale for resuming the designation is the 2017 assassination of Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia. It is also possible to argue that North Korea’s officially directed cyberattacks on the United States and other countries qualify as state-sponsored terrorism, though the designation has not been used for such activity before.
Other than making the label fit Pyongyang’s offenses, the other issue with the designation is that the sanctions imposed under it are not terribly germane to a country with whom the United States has no significant trade or aid:
1. A ban on arms-related exports and sales.
2. Controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country’s military capability or ability to support terrorism.
3. Prohibitions on economic assistance.
4. Imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions …
So while North Korea probably qualifies for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is not entirely clear what the designation is supposed to accomplish, beyond escalating the war of words between Trump and Kim. If that’s all it involves, then Trump should have probably just announced Pyongyang is a “short and fat sponsor of terrorism.”