On September 29, 2016, the US Congress passed an act on Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism, overcoming the veto of Barack Obama. Although the act is mainly highlighted in the context of a possible cooling of relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, this story is also connected with yet another attempt to return North Korea to the list of countries supporting terrorism.
On September 14, the subcommittee on the Asia-Pacific region of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress held a hearing on this matter, where speeches were given by Bruce Klingner, fellow partner of the American Heritage Foundation, Victor Cha, analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and other experts who held the appropriate political orientation. Mr.Klingner, now at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, worked in the CIA and the DIA for 20 years, where he also managed the CIA department, which was engaged in the analysis of North Korea during the first round of the nuclear crisis back in 1993. Then, in 1996-2001, he was the Deputy Director of Department of Korea, also in the CIA. Victor Cha is also a well-known conservative and a former employee of the US administration.
Its no wonder that, in the opinion of both experts, “there are no obstacles to placing North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism as there is plenty of evidence of such activities.” Victor Cha recalled the cyberattack made by North Korean hackers on the US film company Sony Pictures, which caused damage to the company and led to the leakage of information. Klingner went even further – his understanding of terrorist activities includes “threats to ordinary people for political purposes.” This alone appears sufficient for North Korea’s inclusion in the above list of countries, which, according to the official position of the US State Department, support acts of international terrorism.
This time, the experts had the opportunity to present their thesis, but the issue was not resolved in the first attempt, although South Korean media described the process as “the United States making increasing calls for the return of North Korea to the list of countries supporting terrorism. When North Korea was excluded from the list in 2008, many disagreed, but after Pyongyang conducted its 5th nuclear test, the issue was quickly brought back on the table.” However, if these actions bear any fruit, we will gain an impressive example of how the principle of official enemy classification works, where compliance with the formal criteria does not matter.
Normally a “sponsor of terrorism” is a state “assisting international terrorists by supplying weapons, providing bases, shelter or protection from punishment, or financing or organizing their training, provision of intelligence information, and providing other forms of assistance and support.” A more detailed explanation of “supporting terrorism” is as follows:
- Regular supply of weapons, money or other material resources to terrorists, without which their terrorist activity would not be so effective.
- Giving terrorists political support – from information campaigns in their favour to granting territory for training camps or bases, from which a terrorist organization can fight against a third country.
- The leading and guiding role of any political organization as it operates in the direct interest of the said country; it is important to note that in this case we are talking about a direct confirmed link, rather than indirect benefits, when the actions of terrorists simply aid a particular country, but have no control or support.
- Actual terrorist activities undertaken by the state intelligence, should it actually be engaged in terrorism, and not in diversion; these terms are somewhat different, in terms of the “target audience” because in the event of war, a large part of what is called a terrorist attack is regarded as “diversion”, an acceptable part of war aimed at the destruction of the enemy’s military or their property, including behind enemy lines.
Sometimes, in terms of state terrorism, a single situation can be highlighted, in which state intelligence agencies purposefully hunt for dissidents around the world: Again, it should be not a single or “excessive act,” but the systematic and proven practice of political assassinations in the territory of third countries.
As you can see, cyber attacks or vague threats are not included in this list. Thus, the fact that the notorious cyber attack on Sony Pictures as a major reason for inclusion in the list is Very Peculiar indeed.
First, too many experts confirm that the attack was impossible without an insider. Moreover, the author heard news that this insider had already been found and the suggestions of DPRK involvement are based on rather shaky assumptions about the use of certain software.
Second, even if we assume that the attack was mastered by Pyongyang, it was not intended to damage vital facilities. Unlike, for example, the actions of Styxnet, which caused real accidents at work. If North Korean hackers had caused an explosion at a nuclear power plant, or at least a large-scale blackout that incurred victims, destruction and serious economic damage, then this type of cyber-terrorist attack could be called a terrorist attack. But in the case of Sony there was no destruction to important information, the hackers simply dumped what they found online.
Third, if actions similar to the Sony attack are now considered not just hacking, but actually terrorism, then we are faced with a precedent which can be regarded as a double-edged sword. It will mean that the activities undertaken by Assange, Snowden, and the notorious hacks of the second half of 2016 related to the US presidential campaign are all terrorist attacks. Should we now put the United States and a number of other countries on the list of state sponsors of terrorism on the basis of exactly the same logic?
In response to the accusations, supporters of returning the DPRK to the list retaliate by saying that the North was removed from it purely for political reasons, and it is time to simply restore justice. Alas, this argument is also incorrect.
Yes, there were times when North Korean actions could be regarded as a terrorist attack, but even the basic, most well-known stories about it are only half truths. Let’s recall them.
A group of commandos attack the Blue House in 1968 – this is a well-known and proven fact. Just like the failed attempt at a response made by South Korea, which became the plot of the film “Silmido”.
Attempted homicide of Park Chung-hee in 1974, when his wife was killed. There has been no link found between the murderer and North Korean secret services. It is known that he was a Japanese Korean and belonged to a left-wing organization, but the most probable version is a non-affiliated terrorist. Generally, this story has a lot of grey areas linked with how an armed murderer managed to get into the closed session.
Attempted homicide of Chun Doo-hwan in 1983 in Burma – this is a fact. The man detained by the Burmese authorities gave confessions. Incidentally, after that Burma broke off diplomatic relations with North Korea.
The explosion of a South Korean plane in 1987, after which North Korea was put on the list – this is an extremely unclear story. We only have the testimony of a single witness who repented, was amnestied and then disappeared. Conspiracy theories put forward a provocation by the North Korean secret services, another version has it as a Japanese Korean girl from among the terrorists struck a deal with the investigation team and pretended to be a North Korean spy and then gave a politically correct testimony.
After that North Korea has not undertaken any actions that could be construed as terrorist support: North Korea’s involvement in the death of Yi Han-yong remained unconfirmed, and the story of the assassination attempt on Park Sang-hak was basically turned into a spectacle and cast the self-proclaimed “Dissident No.1” in a bad light when the “specialist with poisoned needles” turned out to be an ordinary acupuncturist.
The answer is simple – the return of North Korea to the list will not only add to the demonization of the country, but also significantly increase the pressure of sanctions, which the opponents of Pyongyang actively strive for. Putting Pyongyang back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism will close off Pyongyang’s access to financial assistance from international organizations such as the IMF and the Asian Development Bank. And this is why the enemies of the DPRK will continue to misuse their own definitions, discrediting the very concept of the fight against state supported terrorist organizations.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.