The Obama administration is apparently considering putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, in response to its attack on Sony Pictures’ computer system and threats against movie theaters showing the now-canceled film The Interview. The truth is, it never should have been taken off the list in the first place. The Bush administration in 2008 removed the designation in a foolhardy attempt to keep alive its diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang. Compounding the mistake, Obama kept it off the list, despite North Korean aggression like the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010, its breaking of the 2012 “Leap Day Agreement,” a third nuclear test in 2013, and other destabilizing actions.
Putting North Korea back on the list won’t change anything much, but it will at a minimum be a moment of moral clarity. Rewarding North Korea for transient adherence to diplomatic agreements it had already broken, and when the nature of the regime had in no way changed, showed intellectual confusion and moral weakness on the part of the U.S. government. It sent the clearest of signals that Pyongyang did not have to alter its behavior in any meaningful way; it even encouraged more aggression, such the incidents listed above, and probably led the Kim regime to think they were winning their struggle against Washington. Since Washington has so far failed in its goal of denuclearizing the North and modifying the regime’s actions, Pyongyang isn’t wrong.
What happens if/when the Obama administration puts the country back in the diplomatic doghouse? Being designated a state sponsor of terrorism triggers four different type of sanctions, according to the State Department: restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual-use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. The last is the one that would have any real impact, as it did in the mid 2000s, before the Bush administration surrendered that leverage, as well, in the hopes of getting North Korea to negotiate. Being largely a mafia-regime running a country, cutting off access to the world’s financial system seems to be the only thing that really hurts the Kim thugocracy.
There is another twist to this story, though, that has more complex implications. If Washington does re-label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, what about China? After all, U.S. officials at the least intimated that North Korea uses Chinese networks and firewalls to launch cyberattacks, including possibly the one against Sony. At a minimum, that makes Beijing an abettor, since it cannot believably feign ignorance about Pyongyang’s cyber activities. But Beijing may be more than an ignorant bystander; it may be an accomplice to North Korea’s cyberterrorism, actively helping it, given the complexities of this attack, as noted by U.S. officials.
Intellectual consistency and moral clarity would require the United States to designate China a state sponsor of terrorism. That will never happen, of course. And since it will not happen, North Korea and other cyberterrorists will likely always find a haven and a supporter in China, itself the greatest cyber criminal of all.
The bottom line is: Expect more attacks. Now that two of America’s largest entertainment corporations have caved into threats or the fear of threats and self-censored themselves, the template is set for more destruction of intellectual and private electronic property, the sowing of greater fear for personal safety, and the exposure of the inability of American businesses to protect themselves from the dark spots of the cyber world, many of which originate in the world’s most aggressive and anti-liberal regimes: China, North Korea, and Russia.