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North Korea’s Legacy of Terrorism

On April 30th, North Korea tried and found guilty US citizen Kenneth Bae for “hostile acts” against the state, sentencing him to 15 years of hard labor. A May 15th press release from North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency stated that he has now begun serving his sentence within a “special prison.” Bae, a devout Christian, is the owner of a North Korea tour company and was in the country with official permission when detained by North Korean authorities on November 3rd. What actually took place leading to his arrest has been the subject of much conjecture, but one thing is certain: Bae, a humanitarian who had compassion for North Korea’s starving and abandoned orphans, is not indictable for any crime. Rather, he is a hostage being held to accommodate yet undetermined North Korean agenda.

The Bae case recalls the still unresolved case of a Christian minister and humanitarian, the Reverend Kim Dong-shik, who died in a North Korean prison. In 2000, North Korean agents crossed the border and hunted Kim down in China, where he was operating several underground shelters for North Korean refugees. He was abducted and taken back into North Korea, where he was reportedly tortured and starved to death. Given China’s inhumane policy to forcibly repatriate North Koreans who manage to escape their country-gulag (a policy that has led to thousands of deaths and divided Korean families), one can safely assume China tolerated, if not sanctioned, the abduction. Kim was a US permanent resident whose wife and two children, all US citizens, are from Illinois.

Careful examination of Kim’s case exposes an unethical and dangerous double standard in United States foreign policy toward North Korea, specifically in reference to human rights violations, terrorism, and mass atrocity. In 2005, then Senator Barack Obama and 19 other Illinois lawmakers co-signed a letter to North Korea’s UN mission, in which they promised not to support the de-listing of the DPRK government as a state sponsor of terrorism until a full accounting was given concerning the fate of Reverend Kim. North Korea has never accounted for Kim, and in 2008, when the Bush administration agreed to the removal of the DPRK from the state terrorism list, in an unprincipled (and eventually failed) attempt to broker a deal with Pyongyang on its nuclear activities, the Democratic nominee reversed positions. Kim’s case has been essentially ignored by Washington ever since, although his death has been confirmed by South Korean intelligence.

A 2011 report (pdf) from the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea found that North Korea has abducted more than 180,000 people from 12 countries. The committee called on the United States to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism because of the abductions, which are categorized under 18 USC Section 2331 as acts of terrorism.

US officials and security analysts continue to make a grave mistake in concentrating their North Korea policy on somehow convincing the DPRK to dissolve its nuclear weapons program; a crisis that history has demonstrated with distinction cannot be resolved while the current regime remains in power. North Korea takes pride in its status as a nuclear state more than anything else and has stated on numerous occasions that their nuclear capability is non-negotiable, referring to it as a “treasured sword.” Concurrently, a war with North Korea would never commence by means of a DPRK nuclear strike, which would be tantamount to political suicide, but with covert terror operations such as what took place in Boston on April 15th—the exact form of attack North Korea has repeatedly employed against South Korea and its citizens since its inception. On April 20th, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency felt compelled to publicly deny any connection to the Boston Marathon bombings, stating that the DPRK “has consistently maintained the stand of opposing all forms of terrorism.” The official statement went on to add that “When the DPRK feels necessary to strike the US, it would not resort to such heinous terrorism in hiding.” Yet the facts of North Korea’s international behavior suggests otherwise.

On April 15, 1969, for example, 31 American crewmen were killed when two North Korean MiG-17s shot down a US reconnaissance aircraft on a routine flight that at no time violated North Korean airspace. The US Navy intelligence plane had flown the identical route over the preceding three months without any occurrence. But this date, which marks the birth of Kim Il-sung, is the most important day of the North Korean calendar, and thus North Korea asserted that the aircraft had flown deep into its airspace and its air defense forces “scored the brilliant battle success.” In January of the preceding year, the USS Pueblo was attacked and abducted by North Korean warships in international waters. Eighty-two officers and crew were taken hostage and tortured; one was killed.

In August 1976, US soldiers entered the heavily guarded demilitarized neutral zone that separates North and South Korea to trim a tree that was blocking the view from an observation post. In what was later found to have been a pre-planned attack, 35 North Korean soldiers ambushed the ROK service corps personnel and members of a UN command team. The attackers literally axed to death US Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett. Today the attack is referred to as the Axe Murder Incident.

These attacks were tantamount to acts of war, flagrant violations of the treaties that govern international waters and the 1953 Korean War Armistice. Yet they were never met with any form of retaliation, or any meaningful consequences. Indeed, rather than show any hint of remorse in light of the international condemnation for such unprovoked attacks, hostage-taking, and torture, North Korea’s absolute contempt for the US and international law is evident in the proud public displays, in Pyongyang, of the captured USS Pueblo (the actual vessel) and, in Panmunjom, the ax used to murder the two US officers, as memorials to North Korea’s vigilance and courage. 

Apart from North Korea’s own citizens, no nation and people have suffered more as a result of the savagery of the DPRK than the Republic of Korea. Set aside the North Korean–led invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, which induced a war that claimed millions of Korean lives on both sides: even in the wake of the 1953 Korean War Armistice, North Korea has committed murders, abductions, and acts of terror with impunity in violation of the armistice and international humanitarian law.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s own mother was murdered in August 1974 by a Japanese-born North Korean during an assassination attempt on Park’s father, then President Park Chung-hee. In a previous attempt on her father’s life, in January 1968, 31 North Korean commandos infiltrated South Korea with orders to cut off Park Chung-hee’s head, photograph it, and return to the North in time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. A firefight ensued in which 68 South Koreans were killed and 66 wounded; there were six American casualties.

In October 1983, DPRK agents gathered explosives from a North Korean diplomatic mission and concealed three bombs in the roof of the Martyr’s Mausoleum in Rangoon, Burma, coinciding with South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan’s official visit. The explosion killed 21 people and wounded 46 others, including the South Korean foreign minister, deputy prime minister, and several members of the South Korean Cabinet; four Burmese citizens were also killed. Although the Burmese government investigation found that three members of the North Korean military were the perpetrators, after their arrest, Pyongyang, in typical fashion, denied any involvement with the bombing and adroitly avoided accountability.

In November 1987, two North Korean spies with Japanese aliases posing as father and daughter boarded Korean Airline Flight 858. Before leaving the aircraft, 25-year-old Kim Hyon-hui planted a bomb in an overhead compartment during a stopover in Abu Dhabi. All 115 people on the plane died in the attack. In response to this incident, the US listed North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1988.

More recently, in March 2010, an unprovoked torpedo attack resulted in the sinking of the Cheonan, a Republic of Korea navy ship, killing 46 sailors, and, in November of the same year, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, another unprovoked attack on South Korean territory, resulted in the death of four innocent Koreans. Both cases have been referred to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes.

Apart from the abductions, murders, and terrorist attacks, North Korea continues to be the world’s worst proliferator of nuclear weapons technology, and, most fundamentally, is committing crimes against humanity and genocide against its own people. It is high time for the United States to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and to concentrate its efforts on justice for its own citizens, for its allies, and for the DPRK’s several millions of innocent human victims. 

Robert Park is a minister, human rights activist, and founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, a nonprofit working to provide life-saving resources to victims and their families within North Korea.

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