President Trump did something this week which he said should have happened a long time ago. He re-designated North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism.
North Korea was first designated a state-sponsor of terror in 1988 following its implication in the blowing up of a South Korean airliner.
So why did the Bush administration lift this designation in 2008?
The Hermit Kingdom has a long history of engaging in and sponsoring terrorism. In 1987, North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airliner killing all 115 on board. In 1983, North Korea staged a bombing in Rangoon, Burma to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan. Although Chun survived, 21 were killed.
There have been many similar acts of terror conducted by or sponsored by the North Korean regime. The most recent occurred last February when two Indonesian women recruited by North Korean agents assassinated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam by smearing deadly VX nerve agent on his face in the Kuala Lumpur airport.
According to The New York Times, the Kim Jong Un regime has executed over 140 senior officials, often killing them with flamethrowers, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. This included his uncle Jang Song-Thaek who was killed in late 2013 along with his family and aides.
It was no surprise that the Obama administration did not re-impose the state-sponsor of terrorism designation due to its “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea which was a plan to do nothing and kick the North Korea problem to the next president.
But it was a huge surprise when the George W. Bush took North Korea off America’s state-sponsor of terrorism list in October of 2008 as an appeasement offer to negotiate an agreement to address the threat from the North Korean nuclear program. Bush officials also lifted tough banking sanctions and sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
The Bush administration took these actions in response to North Korean demands and after Pyongyang submitted a declaration of its nuclear program in June 2008 that Bush officials knew was false and incomplete.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra in 2008 harshly condemned Bush administration appeasement of North Korea when he said, “A decision seemingly has been made that it is more important for the White House to reach a legacy agreement than to get to the bottom of North Korea’s nuclear efforts. . . . Lifting sanctions and removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism flies in the face of history and rewards its brutal dictator for shallow gestures.”
President Trump appears to be pursuing a very different North Korea policy that recognizes the mistakes of past administrations. Mr. Trump is talking tough about North Korea and has signaled he will not agree to half measures which do not fully address the threat from the North’s nuclear and missile program and that Pyongyang will ignore. He has been very clear that the U.S. will defend its allies against North Korean provocations, including by warning in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly that if the U.S. “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
In addition, the Trump administration is not just pushing for more U.N. sanctions against North Korea, it also is aggressively pressing other states — especially China — to enforce existing sanctions. As a result, U.N. sanctions reportedly are beginning to have an effect on the North.
Putting North Korea back on the state sponsors of terrorism list is mostly symbolic and will not significantly increase the pressure on this rogue state. But this symbolism is important because it sends a message to Pyongyang and the world that President Trump takes the North Korean threat much more seriously than the Bush and Obama administrations as well as Mr. Trump’s determination not to kick the North Korean threat to the next president.