On Thursday, President George W. Bush said he would remove North Korea from the list of terror sponsors after Pyongyang turned over information detailing its nuclear capabilities. In a 2003 “Explainer,” Slate investigated why North Korea, a state with few terrorist ties, was on the list in the first place. The column is reprinted below.
Once again, the State Department has officially cited North Korea as one of seven “designated state sponsors of terrorism.” Yet the Stalinist “Hermit Kingdom” is certainly no breeding ground for the likes of al-Qaida or Hezbollah. How exactly does North Korea sponsor terrorism?
According to the State Department, mainly by selling missile technology to the likes of Libya and Syria, two other members of the ominous list. There is also ample evidence that Kim Jong-il’s regime has knowingly sold smaller weapons to separatist groups; three years ago, the Philippines publicly alleged that North Korea did an arms deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Such sales are believed to be one of North Korea’s few sources of hard currency, along with counterfeiting and other criminal activities.
In terms of direct terrorist action, however, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as the nation is formally known) has been relatively quiet since 1987, when it’s believed to have orchestrated the bombing of Korean Airlines Flight 858. That attack is thought to have been a tactic to scare tourists away from visiting the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul; Kim Jong-il was miffed that his country had not been asked to co-host the games. North Korean operatives were also behind a 1983 attempt on the life of South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, who was scheduled to visit a memorial in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). A traffic delay may have saved the president’s life: The timed bombs went off before his arrival, killing 17 South Korean dignitaries instead.
South Korea also believes that its northern neighbor was behind the 1996 assassination of a South Korean diplomat in Vladivostok, Russia. The killing closely followed a warning from Pyongyang that it would take action if South Korea did not repatriate the bodies of several North Korean spies.
Every year, the State Department also mentions North Korea’s harboring of four members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction. These terrorists were involved in the 1970 hijacking of a Japan Airlines jet, sometimes referred to as the “Yodogo Incident.” They flew the plane to the DPRK, hoping to found an operational base from which they could foment a worldwide proletariat revolution. These Red Army members (originally nine in number) were allegedly later responsible for ordering the kidnappings of several Japanese citizens and spiriting them away to North Korea in the hopes of brainwashing them into becoming Communist loyalists. Japan still demands the extradition of the surviving four hijackers left in the DPRK, but Pyongyang shows no signs of relenting after all these years.
Bonus Explainer: Another splinter group of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction, known as the Japanese Red Army, is believed responsible for the 1972 massacre at Israel’s Lod Airport and may still be limping along. According to the latest State Department report, it maintains “six hardcore members” who may be hiding out in Lebanon.