November 21, 2017

Are North Koreans Terrorists?

President Trump has returned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. (See New York Times story here.) From any other president, this would seem an odd move. From this president, it’s par for the course.

Mr. Trump is obsessed with North Korea and frustrated with his seeming inability to affect that nation’s course of weapons development. Severe sanctions have been applied to North Korea to no conspicuous effect. Even China has been coöperated in this project, despite concerns that a collapse of the Kim regime would flood China with refugees and put an American ally on its doorstep. What more can the U.S. do?

The answer is not much. But officially labeling North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism allows the president to imagine that he is doing something significant.

DPRK flag
He is not. Not only will the designation have little effect North Korea’s ability to function, but the president’s action degrades the significance of the terrorism list itself. At least as far as the public knows, North Korea has done nothing in years that can be called terrorism. The administration cites the assassination of political enemies on foreign soil and the development of weapons of mass destruction. These are not acts of terrorism, which are acts designed to terrorize a population. If what North Korea has done are acts of terrorism,  the United States is also a state sponsor of terrorism. The CIA has carried out assassinations; President Trump himself has as much as threatened to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea.

Mr. Trump had no reason to label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. He was simply running out of insults to heap on the Kim regime and thought branding North Koreans terrorists was a clever next step. He thereby has called into question whether the designation of North Korea (or any nation) as a state sponsor of terrorism means anything at all.

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