North Korea Deserves to Remain on U.S. List of Sponsors ofTerrorism

Report Asia

North Korea Deserves to Remain on U.S. List of Sponsors ofTerrorism

November 19, 2001 15 min read
Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Balbina is a former Senior Policy Analyst

In its bid to win the war against terrorism, the Bush Administration should ignore the calls of countries like North Korea that want to be dropped from its list of terrorist states in exchange for their nominal support for this campaign. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been included on the U.S. Department of State's list of states that sponsor terrorism since 1988, after North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airliner, killing 115 civilians.1

The same totalitarian regime continues to hold power in Pyongyang, and North Korea continues to harbor terrorists. Nevertheless, it demands that the United States remove it from its list of terrorist states and denounces the U.S. campaign to eradicate global terrorism as "hostile." The United States should not respond by pandering to North Korean demands.

This does not mean that the Administration should abandon its current policy of reciprocal engagement with North Korea. Reciprocal and verifiable engagement is the best available option for the United States to ensure long-term stability on the Korean Peninsula and contribute to the effort to cement a permanent peace treaty for the Korean people.

Indeed, President Bush has stated that he continues to support the so-called Sunshine Policy toward this goal developed by President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea. And in a joint press conference on November 15, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Dong Shin pledged their full and close coordination in the fight against terrorism.

Rather than rush to drop North Korea from the State Department's list, the United States should insist that the DPRK take credible action to show that it no longer supports terrorism, beginning with the deportation of the four Japanese Red Army hijackers it has harbored for years and taking full responsibility for its own former terrorist acts. North Korea also should meet the burden of proof that it is a responsible member of the international community by not proliferating weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, to terrorist organizations.

U.S. Relations with North Korea

Before the September 11 attacks, the United States seemed to be moving toward removing North Korea from its list of terrorist nations, particularly during the latter years of the Clinton Administration. Being on this list prevents North Korea, whose economy has collapsed, from receiving aid, loans, and investment from multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In the past, North Korea had insisted that it be removed from the list before it would conduct any high-level discussions with the United States.2 But on October 6, 2000, President Bill Clinton and Jo Myong Rok, the first vice chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, met at the White House in the highest-level meeting between officials of the two countries since the 1953 cease-fire agreement ending the Korean War.

One of the outcomes of the October 6 meeting was a joint declaration in which North Korea denounced terrorism and the two sides committed themselves to an exchange of data on international terrorism. This agreement was widely hailed as an early step toward removing North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In the days immediately following the September 11 attacks, North Korea's foreign ministry expressed regret and joined the worldwide condemnation of terrorism. More recently, Pyongyang has also pledged to sign two more U.N.-sponsored anti-terrorism treaties, the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism3 and the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages.4 North Korea has now joined seven of the 12 U.N. conventions against terrorism, including four aviation-related pacts5 and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, which outlaws attacks on senior government officials and diplomats.6

Since September 11, however, North Korea has used the recent world focus on terrorism as an opportunity to condemn the United States for its policies. Repeatedly expressing opposition toward terrorism, the North has been urging the Bush Administration to remove it from its list of sponsors of terrorism and demanding that the United States halt what it calls "hostile" American policy against it. The regime declared recently, for example, that

the philosophy of our nation is centered on the value of humans and this speaks for itself that there can be no connection between us and terrorism. And yet despite our opposition towards terrorism the U.S. still leaves us on a despicable list and imparts hostility towards us.7

North Korea also claims that the U.S. terrorist classification is "absolutely unjust" and denounces Washington for "finding groundless fault" with its policies. Pyongyang believes that the United States is the source of international terrorism--an apparent criticism of U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf War and Kosovo. Its logic: It believes interference in another country's internal affairs is aggression and a form of terrorism.8

The United States, prior to September 11, had three preconditions for removing North Korea from the State Department's list of terrorist states:

  • Signing the international conventions against terrorism,
  • Publicly denouncing terrorism, and
  • Deporting the four Japanese Red Army terrorists it continues to harbor.

Clearly, when North Korea publicly denounced terrorism and pledged to sign the international treaties on combating terrorism earlier this month, it did so with the goal of being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But the Bush Administration should not allow token gestures to equate with real action.

International treaties may be symbols of international solidarity, but they are no substitute for an active campaign to eliminate the global scourge of terrorism and hardly a reliable measure of a state's commitment to this effort.9 This is evident in the growing, not waning, influence that terrorism has had in world affairs despite the signing by many countries of international treaties and conventions.

North Korea and Terrorism

Perhaps more significant than North Korea's stated commitments against terrorism are its activities that contribute both to instability in the region and to the proliferation of terrorist organizations.

According to one estimate, North Korea--whose economy is so dysfunctional that it relies on international aid to feed its people--spends over 14 percent of its gross domestic product on its immense military force.10 Since the early 1990s, when its economy collapsed, the DPRK has pursued trade with such states as Angola, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Syria as its only means of earning hard currency. Most of the trade involves arms, chemical and biological weapons materials, and even ballistic missile technology--in clear violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime. Libya, for example, recently bought 50 Rodong-1 missiles from North Korea with a range of 1,000 kilometers.11

Significantly, the North has sold weapons to such terrorist groups as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the United Wa State Army, a drug-trafficking group active in the Burmese sector of the golden triangle (Laos, Burma, and Thailand).12 In addition to supplying terrorist organizations, North Koreans have been seen training in the terrorist camps in Afghanistan.13

The threat of terrorism from North Korea was made clear by the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John E. McLaughlin, who warned earlier this year that

North Korea's challenge to regional and global security is magnified by two factors...first, the North's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and two, its readiness--and eagerness--to become missile salesman to the world.14

North Korea had been accused of state-sponsored terrorism long before Afghanistan decided to give shelter to Osama bin Laden. It has been on the U.S. Department of State's list of states supporting international terrorism since 1988, following the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner by North Korean agents that killed over a hundred people. The U.S. State Department's annual Pattern of Global Terrorism report for 2000 states that North Korea has links with terror organizations, has sold arms to these groups directly and indirectly, and continues to harbor several Red Army hijackers of a Japanese Airlines flight en route to North Korea in the 1970s. The State Department's 1999 report stated that North Korea had links with Osama bin Laden.15

North Korea is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts directly since 1987, and the DPRK declares at every opportunity that it shuns every form of terrorism and any act that assists it.16 Yet its actions over the years belie such statements.

The DPRK has consistently engaged in maneuvers to undermine the South since signing the 1953 Armistice Agreement to end the war on the Peninsula. It has committed over 300 instances of provocation against the South and in the 1990s alone infiltrated the South in at least 15 separate incidents. In one of the most blatant, 26 North Korean commandos in a submarine landed off the South Korean coast in September 1996; they, along with 17 South Koreans, were killed in the ensuing manhunt. Their mission is believed to have been to assassinate South Korean dignitaries.17

Since 1953, North Korea has kidnapped over 3,600 Korean citizens. While most have been returned, 442 are still being held. It also has abducted foreigners, most notably 10 Japanese citizens, which remains a key obstacle to normalizing relations with Japan.18 Other acts of state-sponsored terrorism include the following:

  • In November 1969, a domestic Korean civilian airliner was hijacked and 51 passengers were taken to the North, where 12 still remain in captivity.
  • In January 1968, a North Korean commando team sought to blow up the presidential residence in Seoul, assassinate government officials, and blow up the U.S. embassy. Fortunately, the attempt was foiled and the members of the team were captured.19
  • On October 9, 1983, one of the most devastating North Korean acts against South Korea occurred in Burma, when an assassination attempt was made on President Chun Doo-Hwan. The bombing killed 17 senior Korean officials, including cabinet ministers, and wounded 14 others.20

Thus, despite repeated DPRK declarations condemning terrorism, including a 1991 joint pledge with the South to "refrain from all acts destroying and overthrowing the other side" and not use arms against one another, and a May 1994 statement "opposing any act encouraging and supporting terrorism," its actions betray its lack of sincerity. Notably, the 1996 submarine incursion, as well as a subsequent submarine incident in 1998, occurred despite the cooperation underway under the Agreed Framework established in 1994 with the United States.

How to Treat North Korea Now

The Bush Administration should not rush to remove North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism even after Pyongyang meets all three conditions of signing international conventions against terrorism, denouncing terrorism, and expelling the Red Army hijackers. Before it considers taking the DPRK off the list, the Bush Administration should:

  • Make clear to Pyongyang that it must:

-- Take full responsibility for its acts of terrorism and credibly prove that it will no longer support such acts in the future.

-- Cooperate fully with the international coalition to eradicate terrorism by disclosing any information it has on terrorist groups operating in Central Asia and elsewhere.

-- Immediately halt all arms sales and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations or terrorist-sponsoring states.

  • Stay the course on the U.S. policy of reciprocal engagement with North Korea. The United States has already stated that it is willing to meet with North Korea any place, at any time, to work toward improving bilateral relations. For any such effort to be successful, however, Pyongyang must continue its dialogue with Seoul and the United States on:

-- A permanent peace treaty.

-- Agreement between the South and the North about the political situation on the Peninsula.

-- A reduction in conventional military forces along the demilitarized zone and destabilizing weapons of mass destruction.

-- The return of the remains of U.S. military personnel missing in action during the Korean War.


The events of September 11 have made the eradication of terrorism the most immediate and important goal of the United States, but North Korea remains a profound threat and challenge to peace and stability in East Asia, and indeed the world. Because of North Korea's continuing connection to terrorism, the United States should proceed with great caution before removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. U.S. Department of State, The Pattern of Global Terrorism: 2000 , at .

2. Melissa Healy, "U.S.-North Korea Meeting Marks a Turning Point," The Los Angeles Times , October 11, 2000.

3. The 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, at
Terrorism.asp , states that all signatory countries consider the financing and raising of funds for terrorism to be a crime; the signatory states will provide identification and financial statements of those charged with such activities and will seize funds raised for terrorist activities. See .

4. International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, 1979, at . On November 4, 2001, North Korea pledged to sign these latest two international conventions, but it has not yet confirmed when it will do so. See .

5. The four aviation-related pacts include the Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (1963); the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (1970); the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation (1971); and the Protocol on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation (1988). See .

6. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, 1973, at .

7. See .

8. "North Korea Silent on Attacks in U.S.," The Korea Times , September 13, 2001.

9. Seven countries on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist states are signatories of the 12 U.N. conventions or treaties against international terrorism. They are Cuba (four); Iran (four); Iraq (six); Libya (nine); North Korea (six); Sudan (12); and Syria (four). See .

10. By comparison, South Korea spent 3.1 percent of GDP last year on military expenditures. See Bertil Lintner and Suh-hyung Yoon, "Coming in from the Cold," Far Eastern Economic Review , October 25, 2001.

11. Ibid.

12. A video of an attack last year by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on a Sri Lankan navy vessel shows speedboats that appeared to be of North Korean origin. The rebels also appeared to be using a North Korean variant of the Russian 107mm Katysha rocket launcher. In late 1990, North Korea sold Burma 20 million rounds of 7.62mm rifle ammunition, which intelligence sources say ended up in the hands of the United Wa State Army. Ibid .

13. "Afghan Camps Are Training Ground for Terrorists," The Deseret News , Salt Lake City, Utah, March 5, 2000.

14. Lintner and Yoon, "Coming in from the Cold."

15. U.S. Department of State, The Pattern of Global Terrorism: 1999 and The Pattern of Global Terrorism: 2000 .

16. "North Korea Silent on Attacks in U.S."

17. Devin Sullivan, "South Koreans Kill 7 From North Korean Sub," The Washington Post , September 20, 1996.

18. An operations department in the North Korean Workers' party is reported to operate a specially trained abduction squad. Yayeko Taguchi, a Japanese citizen who has been missing since 1978, is known to have taught Japanese to Kim Hyun-hee, the North Korean terrorist who blew up the Korean civilian airliner in 1987. See Fred Hiatt, "Japan Kidnappings May Lead to North Korean Spy Case," The Washington Post , January 20, 1988. A human rights report, edited jointly and released in 1988 by the U.S.-based Asia Watch and the Minnesota Lawyers Human Rights Committee, reports that five Lebanese women were kidnapped and taken to North Korea, where they underwent espionage training, together with other women abducted from Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Jordan, and Macao. See David Weisbrodt et al., Human Rights in the DPRK (Minneapolis: Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee, 1998).

19. "Incidents Involving North Korea," The Washington Post , February 23, 1988.

20. Michael Berlin, "Burma Details North Korean Role in 1983 Bombing," The Washington Post , October 4, 1984.


Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang

Former Senior Policy Analyst