I’ve been offline for about two weeks because of work-related travel, and so I wasn’t able to chime in on the debate with regard to North Korea and its alleged hacking of Sony. But, while according to news reports, there are still questions about the degree of Pyongyang’s culpability, the incident—and revelations about the extent to which North Korea has developed it cyber-terrorism capabilities—should be cause for reflection about just why North Korea was removed from the state sponsor of terrorism list in the first place. It’s an episode I cover in my book about the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes, and it doesn’t reflect well on the George W. Bush administration in general, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in particular. But, against the backdrop of the rush to normalize relations with Cuba, lift sanctions, and remove that communist dictatorship from the state sponsor of terrorism list, it’s useful to reflect on how putting diplomatic ambition and legacy above reality really can hurt American national security.
At any rate, the story of North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list dates back to 2006. American forces were mired in Iraq, Bush’s popularity was plummeting, and so Rice decided to seize upon North Korea to try to secure a positive legacy for Bush. In November 2006, Rice and Christopher Hill, her point man for the Korean peninsula, offered to remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the Trading with the Enemy Act, scrapping the Clinton team’s demand that North Korea provide a written guarantee that it had ceased terrorism, would acquiesce to international agreements for combating terrorism, and would address its past terrorism.
It’s useful to remember just why North Korea was on the list in the first place. First of all, there were multiple bombings in the 1980s—of a South Korean passenger plane and of a mausoleum in Burma in which multiple South Korean officials were holding a ceremony. But shouldn’t there be an expiration date on past terrorism? For the sake of argument, let’s say Rice should let bygones be bygones, and that states should fall off the terror sponsorship list after remaining clean for a period of time. Alas, North Korea never passed this test either. For purely political reasons, Rice’s State Department attested that Pyongyang had not sponsored terrorism since 1987. Information available to the U.S. government and chronicled by the Congressional Research Service, however, suggested the opposite. Sources in France, Japan, South Korea, and Israel alleged robust North Korean involvement with both Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a London-based Iranian reporter close to Iran’s reformist camp, described North Korean assistance in the design of underground Hezbollah facilities, assertions backed by a diverse array of reporting. These tunnels allowed Hezbollah to shield rockets from Israeli surveillance prior to the 2006 war and to evade Israeli strikes during it. Chung-in Moon, a professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, has reported allegations that Hezbollah missiles included North Korean components.
North Korean efforts to aid the Tamil Tigers were more blatant. While that group was subsequently eliminated from the face of the earth by the Sri Lankan military, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported in 2000 that North Korea had supplied the Tamil Tigers with weaponry, and the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism made similar claims over the next three years. How sad it was that the State Department’s clean bill of health for North Korea was so readily contradicted by information the State Department had gathered, vetted, and compiled. Meanwhile, three times between October 2006 and March 2007, the Sri Lankan navy intercepted cargo ships flying no flag or identifying marker and found them to be carrying North Korean arms. For Rice and, by extension George W. Bush, however, diplomacy outweighed intelligence reality.
Rice’s drive to remove North Korea from the terrorism list for purely diplomatic reasons also had repercussions on allies. North Korea’s refusal to come clean about its kidnappings of Japanese citizens had long been an irritant and was also a major factor in its initial listing. It is certainly true that Pyongyang had started to come around: In 2004, the regime returned five surviving abductees of the ten it eventually admitted seizing, but the Japanese government believes that Pyongyang’s agents had actually kidnapped eighty Japanese citizens. For North Korea, why take a full step, when a half step—or even an eighth of a step—would suffice? And Pyongyang guessed right. Rice pressured Tokyo to tone down its objections and told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the White House was under no obligation to classify the kidnappings as terrorism. As so often happens in the State Department, appeasing an enemy had trumped honoring allies.
Well, with sleight of hand, Rice had removed obstacles to further normalization with North Korea. It was full speed ahead on efforts to bring a comprehensive settlement to the North Korea problem. In January 2007, Hill met with top North Korean diplomat Kim Kye Gwan. Their discussions and agreements culminated the next month in a two-phase six-party agreement, which the White House celebrated as a “very important first step.” In the first sixty-day phase, North Korea would freeze its nuclear program. A second phase—for which no time frame was set—would have North Korea disable its nuclear facilities and disclose all nuclear activities.
Hill’s triumph was, in reality, a major step down: the agreement allowed North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons. For Kim Jong-il, it was a complete victory, capped off by the repatriation of laundered money frozen in a Macau bank. John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was blunt in his condemnation of the deal, saying, “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: ‘If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded.’” True to form, however, the New York Times, praised the agreement without equivocation, famously suggesting that the State Department’s rule of thumb on any initiative should be to ask, “What would Chris Hill do?” If American policymakers took their cues from the New York Times editorial page, however, Ronald Reagan never would have pushed the Soviet Union over the precipice to economic collapse, hundreds of million more people would be living under dictatorships, and Cuba would be more the norm than the exception in the hemisphere.
Rice may have wanted a ‘Hail Mary pass’ to change Bush’s legacy, but the only thing she achieved was to soil it. As recent actions and revelations suggest, North Korea never reformed. It pocketed its concessions, and doubled down on both its terror capabilities and nuclear program. Back to Cuba: Simply pumping money into the Cuban economy and encouraging tourism does not bring change: after all, Raul Castro and the Cuban military largely control the hotels and other tourist infrastructure: the hard currency gained disproportionately will benefit Cuba’s infrastructure of terror and repression.
The lesson to be learned as Obama tried to repeat history with regard to Cuba? White-washing rogue regimes is never an American interest, and magic wands do not change the nature of rogue regimes: only regime change does. Europeans might always subordinate principle and freedom to a quick buck, but America should mean more. The United States should have the wherewithal to outlast a country like Cuba. Cuba needs America far more than America needs Cuba, and politicians in both Washington and Havana should never forget that.