A multinational report linking North Korea to the sinking of a South Korean warship has set in motion an effort to put the North back on a U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
South Korea and the international community also are weighing their options on how to respond to the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea that resulted in the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors.
Victor Cha, who coordinated U.S. policy for the Koreas in the George W. Bush administration, said the Cheonan incident, in combination with North Korean missile tests and the detention of two female American journalists in 2009, “strengthens the case to put North Korea back on the list.”
Members of Congress will support this effort “now that there is a smoking gun,” he said. Part of a torpedo propeller on which a serial number was engraved in Korean script was recovered from the site of the incident. “That changes minds,” Mr. Cha said of the evidence laid out in the report.
North Korea has denied responsibility for the incident.
Mr. Cha was not in government when the Bush administration took North Korea off the list in October 2008.
A congressional source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because lawmakers have yet to frame a public response to the Cheonan report, confirmed congressional resolve to put North Korea back on the list.
“It is a course of action that I expect will get serious attention and consideration from many members of Congress in the weeks ahead,” the source said.
In the first signs of such an effort, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday saying there was “more than ample reason to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terror.”
He said the attack on the Cheonan was “a clear potential causus belli, and unquestionably the most belligerent and provocative incident since the 1953 armistice was established.”
On Thursday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, introduced legislation in the House that seeks to put North Korea back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
The Bush administration’s decision to take North Korea off the list was linked to shutting down a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon.
A country can be taken off the list only when the president submits to Congress a report certifying that the government concerned has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
“Once a designation is rescinded, a country would have to meet the statutory criteria for designation in order to again be designated as a state sponsor - it must be shown that the government has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” said Fred Lash, a State Department press officer.
Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies, said the Cheonan sinking did not constitute an act of terrorism because “they took down a military vessel of a declared enemy which is still technically at war with them.” Navy sailors are not considered noncombatants.
The North and South remain technically at war under a truce that ended fighting in the Korean War.
Mr. Ku said that, while the terrorism list has more bite to it, imposing trade sanctions by putting North Korea back on a separate Trading With the Enemy Act list would send a clear message of support to South Korea. The Bush administration also took North Korea off this list in 2008.
The White House condemned the Cheonan incident as an “act of aggression” that it said was “one more instance of North Korea’s unacceptable behavior and defiance of international law” and violated the armistice.