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So Much for Lists

One thing we now know for certain: the American list of state sponsors of terrorism has no moral authority. It is merely a tool with which to pressure countries into accepting deals with the U.S. Case in point: North Korea is no less “sponsor of terrorism” today than it was two days ago. Still, the US has decided it will be removed from the list.

The new agreement between the U.S. and North Korea is a complicated one, and one can’t easily decide if it was the right call for the U.S. John McCain seems to be suspicious, Barack Obama more receptive–but this will not become a campaign issue because it really is too complicated. I tend to be on the wary side of this debate–maybe because I was recently briefed on the issue of North Korean involvement with dangerous regimes in the Middle East (Iran, Syria). Last week, Israel accused North Korea of providing weapons of mass destruction–or assisting in programs aimed at developing such weapons–to six countries in the Middle East.

But debate about the merit of the agreement aside, there’s also a problem with the eroding of the meaning of the “list.” There is a simple question one has to answer: Is North Korea still sponsoring terror? If it isn’t, why was the country still on the list last week? If it is, why will it not be there next week? Pyongyang was put on the U.S. list “based on the confession of a North Korean agent over the mid-air explosion of a South Korean passenger jet in 1987 which killed more than 100.” The nuclear deal has nothing to do with this case, it has nothing to do with the support of terror.

So, whatever one might think about the new understanding, one might conclude that the US is quite cynical when it comes to tagging countries as “sponsoring terror.” And since both presidential candidates tend to whine about the declining popularity of America and Americanism in the world, they both now consider supporting a measure that will only serve as yet further proof for American dishonesty.

And of course, only the most naïve still believe that the “list” is a moral cause rather than a political tool of diplomacy. Nevertheless, with North Korea, the moral case is stronger than in other cases and should be reclaimed. North Korea, as most experts will explain, is not going to gain a lot, practically speaking, from this move. Sanctions by the UN and by the U.S. will still be in place, and exporting from the U.S. to Pyongyang will not resume in the near future. It is true that for North Korea, one of the poorest countries in the world, even the smallest financial gain can be of some significance.

The North Koreans had been deeply upset that the U.S. had not dropped them from the terrorist list as a reward for their limited cooperation to date. U.S. officials emphasized that although North Korea’s excision from the list lifts a stigma, it will have little practical effect, because other U.S. laws still impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on the impoverished Stalinist regime.

So: it is lifting this stigma that makes it an important move, not the practical implications. That raises the question: was it a “stigma” or a fact-based categorization? And if it was fact-based, does it mean that the U.S. is now, bluntly speaking, just lying by deletion?

And by the way, this New York Times report on the North Korea issue is an illuminating example of a bad choice of words. Whether it has something to do with the political tendencies of the writer/editor I don’t know–but suspicions are justified. Look at the wording:

The 1994 accord collapsed in 2002 after the Bush administration accused North Korea of circumventing the agreement by pursuing a second path to a bomb, based on enriching uranium.

So: the Bush administration is the one responsible for the collapse of the Clinton agreement with North Korea? If you read the New York Times you’d be right to conclude that the agreement was not collapsing because North Korea pursued a bomb, secretly, but rather because the Bush administration has accused North Korea of pursuing a bomb.



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