On Oct. 31, the State Department faces a critical decision in our relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Iran-Russia-North Korea sanctions bill enacted in August included legislation I introduced that requires the secretary of state to decide whether to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism within 90 days.
Look at the accusations against Pyongyang: the unspeakable treatment of Otto Warmbier; the assassination of a member of the Kim family with chemical weapons on foreign soil; collusion with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; cyberattacks on American film companies; support for Syria’s chemical weapons program; arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas; and attempts to assassinate dissidents in exile. Given this, the decision should be easy. In fact, Americans could be forgiven for wondering why North Korea is not already designated as a sponsor of terrorism.
It used to be — and the story behind the decision to remove that designation nearly 10 years ago is the key to understanding America’s failed assumptions about North Korea, how they led to Pyongyang obtaining its nuclear arsenal, and why the United States needs to reverse its approach and relist Pyongyang immediately.
On Feb. 13, 2007, the State Department signed a deal with North Korea in pursuit of a grand bargain: exchanging Pyongyang’s promise of eventual denuclearization for Washington’s guarantees for full diplomatic recognition. Standing in the way, however, was a decision President Ronald Reagan made nearly 20 years earlier, designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism largely in response to its complicity in a 1987 plane bombing that killed 115 people.
Aside from the many stringent limitations a terrorism-sponsor designation imposes on a state, the label serves as a formal indication from the United States that any positive development of diplomatic relations is contingent on abandoning the financing and support of terrorism.
Indeed, the State Department linked Pyongyang’s ties to terrorist groups and its nuclear program as a rationale for maintaining the terror designation in 2005. Two years later, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor believed to have been built with North Korean help in Syria, a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Although all this was understood at the time, the United States elected to delist North Korea in 2008 — and in so doing, again fell back into its pattern of misunderstanding rogue regimes.
When North Korea reneged on its promise to forgo nuclear weapons in the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s administration put together the “Agreed Framework” that paved Pyongyang’s path to nuclearization. When North Korea’s leader at the time, Kim Jong-il, withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, confirming that he intended to build a nuclear weapon, President George W. Bush pushed for the China-led six-party talks with North Korea. When the country tested its second nuclear weapon in 2009, President Barack Obama opted for “strategic patience.” Three subsequent tests showed just how misguided this was.
It is time to acknowledge that North Korea may never be interested in negotiating away its nuclear deterrent. Of course we should continue to leave the door open for serious discussions if the situation changes, but the United States government does our citizens — and the world — a disservice if it continually discounts the centrality of nuclear weapons to the Kim regime.
They are not a mere insurance policy for survival. They are a means to a more sweeping end: reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Pyongyang’s terms. We must seriously consider the possibility that the North’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, is preparing to use nuclear weapons to drive American forces out of South Korea and coerce Seoul — even at the risk of fighting a limited nuclear war.
Given this, the United States must approach North Korea with sobriety and urgency. The Trump administration has the opportunity to join both houses of Congress in acknowledging the truth about North Korea and using it to open new opportunities to maximize pressure.
Among North Korea’s many significant forms of illicit financing are foreign slave labor and money laundering. From Africa to Europe, North Korean diplomats exploit their consular posts to launder money at the expense of international comity. If North Korea is relisted, these nations would face a significant decision: Is continuing diplomatic and economic relations with a state that uses diplomacy export and foment terrorism in their interest?
407COMMENTSIt would pose an even deeper question to the United States: Will we continue our diplomatic overtures to the Kim regime on the flawed assumption that it is interested in a future without nuclear weapons? It is because of America’s bipartisan belief in North Korea’s potential amenity in a political settlement, captured in the 2008 delisting, that North Korea can now marry a miniaturized warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile. Relisting Pyongyang is the first step toward a strategic vision based on facts rather than aspirations.
We must tell the truth about the dangerous ambitions of North Korea and once again list it as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that only strengthens our hand and weakens that of Kim Jong-un. I strongly urge the State Department to relist North Korea, and to meet this challenge with the resolve it has long demanded.
Ted Cruz is an U.S. Senator for Texas.