Saturday, March 18, 2017

Terrorism and the Future of North Korea at the United Nations

Image source: Outside the Beltway

After Kim Jong-nam’s assassination with VX nerve agent by emissaries of North Korea in Malaysia on February 13, 2017, calls went up in the United States to have the country re-listed as a state sponsor of terror, and calls from South Korea to have their northern cousins suspended from the United Nations were also registered. But how likely is either scenario?

North Korea was placed on the US terror list in 1988, following the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987 which killed 115 people. The country was removed from the list twenty years later in 2008 by president George W. Bush after appearing to satisfy the demands of a nuclear agreement based on the Six Party Talks. And while North Korea has since violated many nuclear terms and agreements, their last "official" act of international terrorism remains the 1987 bombing. That is, until the death of Kim Jong-nam.

What makes Kim Jong-nam’s death more than a simple case of a country assassinating one of its own citizens, is the fact that he was killed in a foreign country and that he was ostensibly under the protection of China – which is also North Korea’s main patron. Jong-nam had been in a state of quasi-exile ever since trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland with a fake Dominican Republic passport in 2001. His main residence since that time had been Macau. Despite no longer holding any official titles, it is alleged that he had a role in maintaining the Kim family slush fund (operated via Office 39), which holds an estimated $5 billion. Kim Jong-un’s motivation for having his half-brother killed are unknown, but it could be for any number of reasons – from coup rumors, to being displeased with public statements Kim Jong-nam had made, to even mismanagement of funds (if he was indeed involved).

Since there is no single supreme definition the United States works with, it could be difficult pin the label "terrorism" onto the incident. The US has several definitions of what constitutes terrorism and what might constitute a state sponsoring terrorism, and these legal standards vary across agencies and have changed over time. However, the use of VX, the deadliest nerve agent known, changes the game. For some background, Section 3 of the Export Administration Act of 1979 says:

"It is the policy of the United States to use export controls to encourage other countries to take immediate steps to prevent the use of their territories or resources to aid, encourage, or give sanctuary to those persons involved in directing, supporting, or participating in acts of international terrorism."

This is where the use of VX becomes very important. VX is classified as a weapon of mass destruction and is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 (to which North Korea is not party to). The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) defines “terrorist activity” at Section 212(a)(3)(B)(iii):

(IV) An assassination.
(V) The use of any—
                                                                            (a) biological agent, chemical agent, or nuclear                                                                                                               weapon or device,

Additionally, since definitions of "international terrorism" obviously include the activities being carried in other countries, the involvement of a multinational force of conspirators to accomplish the killing (the two women accused of wiping Jong-nam’s face with the nerve agent are from Malaysia and Vietnam), lends weight to the argument that North Korea should be re-listed. However, one possible impediment to this is the fact that many of the standards require that terrorism have a political motive. While there are many theories, there's no smoking gun pointing to a direct political motive to kill Kim Jong-nam. That said, when you consider North Korea's extensive arms trade, including to countries like Syria and Iran (both of which are currently on the list), the case to re-list can be enhanced.

Complicating matters, though, is America’s need to bring North Korea to heel when it comes to the nuclear question, which is America’s key concern and colors every dealing with the country. Re-listing North Korea would result in even greater economic pressures on the state. While this may sound positive, the long-term trend is that whenever North Korea gets backed into a corner, they either strike out in retaliation or proceed with their plans clandestinely. Kim Jong-un has shown no sign of slowing down the nuclear program he inherited and having his regime once again labeled a state sponsor of terrorism is likely to have the opposite wanted effect. Kim Jong-il paid close attention to the destinies of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Gaddafi disarmed Libya of WMDs and was overthrown with the help of the West regardless. Likewise, Saddam Hussein, despite lacking verifiable WMDs, made up part of the Axis of Evil and had his country invaded. No doubt Kim Jong-un has learned the lesson of despots as his father did – disarmament alone is no guarantee of safety.

While the likelihood of North Korea ending back up as a state sponsor of terror is at least 50/50, if history is a guide, the real world long-term results aren't likely to be the desired results.

That takes us to the possibility of having North Korea suspended from the United Nations.
Such an act has never occurred and would require the UN Security Council to recommend the action, from where it would then be approved or disapproved by the General Assembly. As mentioned, North Korea’s last confirmed act of international terrorism was in 1987. Prior to that, North Korea engaged in a number of terrorist activities and supported terrorist groups like the Japanese Red Army. The North’s activities were carried out all around the Asia-Pacific region.

In 1968 North Korean commandos infiltrated South Korea and tried to assassinate then president Park Chung-hee after they raided the Blue House (the South Korean equivalent of the White House). Unsuccessful and undaunted, a second assassination attempt was carried out in 1983. The 1983 attack occurred in Rangoon, Burma when North Korean agents bombed a wreath laying ceremony at which the South Korean president, Chun Doo-hwan, was in attendance. The attack resulted in 67 casualties, including the death of four top-ranking South Korean officials and 17 others.

Apart from the Korean Air Flight 858 bombing in 1987, North Korea had previously hijacked Korean Air Lines YS-11 in 1969. The hijacking ended without any casualties, though, North Korea refused to release eleven of the crew and passengers. To this day their ultimate fates are unknown.
None of these events led to North Korea being suspended from the United Nations. Nor did the killing of two United States Army officers with axes along the DMZ in 1976, or the naval clashes near Yeonpyong Island in 1999 and 2002, or the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010, or the other 200 plus violations of the 1953 Armistice Agreement by North Korea.

The fact is, so long as China (which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council) remains an ally of North Korea, despite whatever troubles may exist between them, China will likely not allow North Korea to be suspended. China, and to some extent Russia, have opposed many would be actions against North Korea by the international community. North Korea continues to serve as a useful buffer state between China and a liberal South Korea (with their entrenched military alliance with the United States) - with their new THAAD missile defense system. North Korea has also shown itself more than capable of developing ballistic and nuclear technology domestically, and cutting them off from all international associations and possible avenues of rapprochement would only push their backs against the wall even further. As mentioned earlier, each time North Korea has been increasingly isolated they have lashed out, but, in the past, there also remained ways for them to reach out and seek de-escalation (which did occur to varying degrees).

Unilateral actions by other countries can have an effect, although such actions by countries long opposed to the North Korean regime are having diminishing returns. Malaysia has taken steps to show their displeasure with the assassination like expelling North Korea’s ambassador Kang Chol, and rescinding the ability of North Korean citizens to travel to Malaysia without a visa. However, China remains the key figure in any attempt at punishing North Korea or affecting change outside of reigniting war.

Recently, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his visit to China that, every option was on the table, including military options, regarding North Korea. China of course tried to play both sides of the fence and suggested we be "cool headed". An all out war is no real option, but the fact remains that the last 20+ years of "cool headed" diplomacy hasn't stopped their nuclear or ballistic missile programs, or led to a more open DPRK. Despite many efforts, their economy remains in tatters and millions still go hungry. China's insistence that we calm down while offering to help in any way possible to relieve tensions on the Korean Peninsula, belies the fact that China has a long history of saying one thing while doing another. China has allowed North Korea to exploit loopholes in UN resolutions to acquire luxury goods and foreign currency (which often ends up in the hands of the military), and even China's latest unilateral action against North Korea - the banning of North Korean coal imports - must be taken with a grain of salt.

Without doubt, North Korea has been squeezed. But we have watched a slow-motion multi-decade catastrophe unfold before our very eyes while we have tried to placate North Korea through the misguided notion that all they want is food and they'll give up their bombs for it. Not only does North Korea have nuclear weapons (and it's time we acknowledge they're a nuclear weapons state instead of pretending they're not), they're on the verge of having a credible first strike capability. Additionally, not only do they have a vast arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, we now know they're not afraid to use them. We are edging ever closer to a point of absolutely no return. Until China is really on-board, any international actions against North Korea will be blunted.

--Jacob Bogle, 3/18/17

Additional Reading
Arsenal of Terror: North Korea, State Sponsor of Terrorism, by Joshua Stanton

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