As the 114th Congress meets for the first time Tuesday, the Sony hack that dominated the holiday news cycle is fresh for political posturing. On Friday, the White House announced a new round of sanctions on North Korea, but Senator Robert Menendez is demanding a stronger response. He has repeatedly called for the State Department to add the Hermit Kingdom to the list of four states that sponsor terrorism. President Obama responded in December that he would “review” the possibility, and yesterday, press secretary Josh Earnest indicated that it was still under consideration.
But it’s not clear what would be achieved by putting North Korea on the list. The current designated states—Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria—are banned from receiving foreign assistance and are subject to a variety of export bans and restrictions. But North Korea is already subject to a “cascade of overlapping sanctions,” none of which would be escalated by North Korea’s addition to the list, says Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and former Director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. North Korea was on the list as recently as 2008, when President Bush agreed to remove the country in an attempt to save a faltering nuclear deal. Since then, Cha says, “I can’t think of how they’ve substantially benefitted from not being on the list.”
Despite the calls to blacklist North Korea, the country may not even qualify as a sponsor of terror. As Earnest noted Monday, countries must meet the technical definition of supporting acts of international terrorism before being added to the list. It's a stretch to call the hack on Sony, which may or may not have originated in North Korea, an act of terrorism. During a December interview with Candy Crowley, Obama merely called the hack an act of “cyber vandalism.” Plus, as Micah Zenko has argued at Foreign Policy, the list itself is somewhat meaningless: Cuba and Sudan seem to have no reason to be on it.
The foreign policy advantages to blacklisting North Korea may be slim, but the political advantages are not. “More than any other country I can think of, North Korea is a largely symbolic problem,” Columbia professor Charles Armstrong says. The North Korea issue has no domestic constituency in the United States to advocate for substantive diplomacy, and the economic and existential stakes are low. Instead of being an issue that the United States treats as a serious, though low-level concern, North Korea is an easy cause for political grandstanding. “Who can be opposed to being tough on North Korea?” Armstrong says. “There’s no political gain to making relations any better.”
As recently as November, Kim Jong-un had shown interest in engaging with the United States. He released three American hostages and made friendly overtures to South Korea and Japan. Six-party talks have been tabled throughout the Obama administration and bilateral talks have stalled since 2012, but 2015 was looking like a promising year to reopen dialogue. Now, in the aftermath of the Sony fiasco, the possibility of reopening talks looks grim.
The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” with North Korea, combined with reactive punishments whenever North Korea misbehaves, isn't working. Rather than politically capitalizing on North Korean aggression, the American government could use recent events as an opportunity to pressure Kim back to the negotiating table. Blacklisting North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism would do the opposite, pressuring Kim into some grandstanding of his own.