Golden Oldie: North Korea and Terrorism

The TerrorWonk is not a North Korea expert, so I have not joined the chorus of pundits. That being said, it is now clear that no one really knew that much of anything – so I might as well have mouthed off.

Kim Jong Il was a monster. Yes he was funny/weird (TerrorWonk too laughed at his antics, making fun of his ostrich initiatives which led to a very odd exchange), but like another late international jester, Muammar Qaddhafi, Kim Jon Il’s stage was built on bones.

For what it is worth, the more I read and study, the more I find institutions trumping individuals. There are exceptions, but knowing that the newest King Kim/Beloved Leader/what have you is particularly weak and new to the family business it seems unlikely that he will take on the established powers in his regime and pursue real reform. It would be nice to think that the North Koreans will rise up against their rulers, but considering how much they have already suffered without a mass rebellion it is difficult to believe one is in the works. Also, unlike the Arab Spring where, despite massive censorship of domestic media, there is fairly open access to pan-Arab media, North Koreans are profoundly isolated. 

South Korea and China are both nervous about the possibilities of a North Korean collapse. South Korea is also well aware of how expensive German re-unification proved to be, and North Korea is far poorer and has been effectively cut off from its neighbor for over fifty years. These countries have an incentive to pay to maintain the status quo. At the same time, that gives the DPRK every incentive to continue its calculated belligerence to ensure that the neighbors keep paying as much as possible.

Meanwhile, the horror show that is North Korea appears likely to continue.

I did write one article on North Korea several years ago, focusing on my main area of interest – terrorism. It is important to provide the coda to this analysis. In October 2008 North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. However the DPRK is not fully cooperating with US counter-terror measures, thus some sanctions remain in place.

National Review Online
FEBRUARY 15, 2007 6:00 A.M.
The T Word
 The lifting of North Korea’s designation as a terrorist-sponsoring nation has a lot to do with Japan.

One of the conditions of the agreement with North Korea is that the United States starts the process of removing North Korea from the list of terrorist-sponsoring nations. Although North Korea’s nuclear program is the central issue, removal from the U.S. list of sponsors of terrorism has been a North Korean priority since February 2000. Inclusion on this list restricts U.S. exports to North Korea and requires the U.S. to veto World Bank and IMF aid to North Korea. The primary complainant regarding North Korean terrorism is Japan, which would also be a major donor in the event of a long-term aid package to North Korea. (For an excellent backgrounder on this issue see the CRS report North Korea: Terrorism List Removal.) Consequently, the bilateral North Korean-Japanese negotiations will be much more than a sideshow–they may provide an important window into North Korean strategy.

North Korea has a long history of sponsoring terror and other international provocations. In November 1987 North Korea bombed a (South) Korean Airline Boeing 707 in mid-flight, killing 115 people. In 1983 a bomb detonated in Rangoon, Myanmar, minutes before South Korea’s president was to lay a wreath there. The bomb killed 17 senior South Korean officials and wounded 14 others. There have been innumerable bloody incursions into South Korea by North Korean forces, and many attacks and attempted attacks on both South Koreans traveling abroad and North Korean defectors. Lower-level violence is almost constant. Reportedly, graduating from North Korean Special Forces training requires successfully entering South Korea and committing an act of vandalism. (Since the Special Forces are one of the only segments of North Korean society that eats enough, candidates have great incentive to succeed.)

Despite decades of being on the receiving end of North Korean violence, in June 2000 South Korea pushed the U.S. not to consider this past history and to remove North Korea from the list of terror sponsoring nations.

The rationale for North Korea’s inclusion on the list is North Korea’s kidnapping of over a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. The kidnapped Japanese were used to train North Korean agents (the woman who confessed to bombing the Korean airliner in 1987 claimed that she was trained to pass as Japanese by a kidnapped Japanese woman). In a September 2002 summit between Kim Jong Il and Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi North Korea admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens and claimed that eight had died and allowed the remaining five to return to Japan. While North Korea claims that the issue is closed, the Japanese are not satisfied. Japan has since claimed that the remains of two of the allegedly kidnapped Japanese that were handed over to the Japanese were not those of the kidnap victims.

North Korea has also reportedly provided a haven to members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA), a far-left terrorist group that was aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other leftist radical terrorists and carried out many bloody attacks. In 1972 JRA gunmen attacked Lod airport in Israel, killing 24 (including 16 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico) and injuring 78. In June 1987 a JRA operative was arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike with a car full of explosives. The group has not been active in over a decade and most of its leaders are imprisoned.

The Japanese government and people feel strongly about the abduction issue. Prime Minister Abe established his national reputation taking a strong stance against North Korea on the abduction issue. Consequently Japan has stated that it can only provide indirect support for the current agreement.

North Korea’s first priority will be to maximize any possible aid package, but how the North Koreans handle talks with Japan may indicate if they have other goals as well. Other participants in the negotiations do not share Japan’s focus on the abductions issue. South Korea, threatened not only by North Korean nukes but also by North Korean artillery that could level Seoul, seeks agreeable relations with and stability in North Korea. China, already facing a flood of North Korean refugees, would like to see the North Korean economy strengthened. The South Koreans have already expressed irritation at what they interpret as Japanese intransigence in the face of a breakthrough.

A long-term North Korean ambition is to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. According to former Pentagon official and long-time Korea watcher Chuck Downs writing in the Journal of International Security Affairs North Korea has made substantial progress in achieving this goal. While the U.S. has a unique military relationship with South Korea, Japan is the closest U.S. ally in the region. For both political and moral reasons the U.S. will not pressure Japan to make concessions on the abduction issue. Stonewalling Japan, while making conciliatory gestures to South Korea, could indicate further North Korean efforts to foster splits among the participants in the six party talks.

International attention will focus on whether North Korea complies with restrictions on its nuclear program. But the character and results of the discussions of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism will be a gauge of whether the North Korean regime is ready to deal or playing for time.

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