Even after a year of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, this year's State Department “Country Reports on Terrorism” makes the risible claim that North Korea is "not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987." It would appear that State's definition of "acts of terrorism" no longer includes international assassinations, threats against foreign media, or arms sales to terrorists—all of which North Korea has done during Barack Obama's presidency. Indeed, no one has refuted State's assertion more convincingly than Obama himself.
In 2005, the Illinois congressional delegation wrote to North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations to protest the abduction and probable murder of the Reverend Kim Dong-shik, a wheelchair-bound U.S. resident who lived in the Chicago suburbs until 1993, when he went to China to help North Korean child refugees. In 2000, North Korean agents abducted Rev. Kim in China and took him to North Korea. Two of the agents later entered South Korea, where they were arrested, charged, and convicted of kidnapping Reverend Kim. After comparing Rev. Kim to Harriet Tubman and Raoul Wallenberg, the letter's authors promised that they would "NOT support the removal of [North Korea] from the State Department list of State Sponsors of Terrorism" until Pyongyang gave the Kim family "a full accounting" of Rev. Kim's fate (emphasis in original). The letter bears the signatures of Henry Hyde, Ray LaHood, Rahm Emmanuel, Dick Durbin, and then-Senator Obama.
In 2008, in an effort to save a failing disarmament agreement, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Despite his promise, then-candidate Obama supported Bush's decision - if only conditionally - saying, "If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been waived." It didn't work, of course; after Bush lifted potentially crippling financial sanctions, Kim Jong-il reneged on the agreement.
In the fifth year of Obama's presidency, Pyongyang still hasn't accounted for Rev. Kim, and perhaps as a consequence of the Obama administration’s laxity, North Korea increasingly relies on the sponsorship of terrorism as a tool of national policy.
In 2009, North Korean arms shipments were intercepted in Bangkok and Dubai on their way to Iran. The cargo included 122- and 240-millimeter rockets and man-portable surface-to-air missiles. The shipments were part of a larger arms supply whose suspected end-users included Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Quds Force, a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for killing American soldiers in Iraq. The North is also suspected of helping Hezbollah build an extensive system of tunnels and bunkers.
In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and shelled a South Korean fishing village, killing two Marines and two civilians. It also carried out cyber attacks and made threats against South Korean newspapers and television stations, particularly those which are staffed by defectors and which report news from inside North Korea (clandestinely, of course). North Korea's official news agency even published a threat to shell the offices of three newspapers in Seoul, complete with their (mostly wrong) coordinates. North Korea carried out its most recent cyber attack on South Korean government and media sites in June, on the anniversary of its 1950 invasion of the South.
Beginning in 2011, North Korea launched an assassination campaign against its critics abroad. Its signature weapons are syringes disguised as pens, and loaded with neostigmine bromide - a poison five times more lethal than potassium cyanide. One victim was Patrick Kim, a South Korean human rights activist who was in Dandong, China, aiding North Korean refugees. One day in August 2011, Kim collapsed on the street and, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times, was found with "a discolored complexion, spots on his fingers and limbs, and flecks of foam on his mouth." He died a few minutes later. Another activist survived a similar attack in Dandong that month, also after being stuck with a needle by a stranger.
Other North Korean agents have been convicted of attempting to assassinate senior defector Hwang Jang-yop and defector-activist Park Sang-hak, who floats leaflets into his homeland with balloons. In 2011, South Korean police arrested a North Korean agent who was on his way to meet and kill Park. The police later showed the assassin's weapons to reporters.
North Korea belongs on the list of state sponsors of terrorism because its conduct meets the legal definition of that term. As long as North Korea suffers no adverse consequences for its terrorism, it will continue to murder human rights activists and dissidents in exile who risk their lives to bring us the truth about their homeland. In a land of scarcity, truth may be North Korea's scarcest commodity of all. Sadly, the truth about North Korea is becoming increasingly scarce in Foggy Bottom, too.
Joshua Stanton blogs at freekorea.us. He has served as an Army Judge Advocate in South Korea and as a Fellow at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, advising on North Korea-related legislation. The views expressed are his own.