WASHINGTON -- The apparent assassination of the North Korean leader's estranged half-brother is strengthening bipartisan calls for the U.S. to place North Korea's name back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation lifted nine years ago. Doing so would increase the country's isolation, while potentially complicating any future diplomacy to halt its nuclear and missile programs.
The U.S. kept North Korea on its terrorism blacklist for two decades after the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner killed 115 people. But President George W. Bush lifted the designation in 2008 to smooth the way for aid-for-disarmament negotiations. The concession proved of little value as the talks collapsed soon after and have yet to resume.
Currently, the U.S. considers only Iran, Sudan and Syria as terrorism sponsors. To re-impose the designation on North Korea, the secretary of state would have to determine that it has "repeatedly" provided support for acts of international terrorism. Last June, the department said North Korea "is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts" since the plane attack 30 years ago.
House lawmakers are pushing for a fresh review of the evidence. The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's exiled elder brother could make the case more persuasive. A pair of female assailants reportedly accosted Kim Jong Nam at an international airport in Malaysia on Monday, and he told medical workers that he had been sprayed with a chemical.
"We should never have taken North Korea off the state sponsor of terrorism list," Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California told a congressional hearing Thursday.
While Malaysian authorities are still investigating, the death compounds the impression of North Korea acting with impunity. Just a day earlier, it launched a new type of medium-range missile as President Donald Trump was meeting Japan's prime minister.
Trump has vowed to "deal with" North Korea but hasn't said how. And it's unclear if his administration would contemplate negotiations with the North, which wants to be treated as a nuclear power. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, want Trump to apply stiffer sanctions on the country and press China to turn the screws on its wayward neighbor.
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who chairs a Senate panel on Asia, is among six Republican senators who this week urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to take more steps to cut off North Korea's access to hard currency. They also sought for the administration to review the terror designation.
"The murder once again highlights the treachery of North Korea," Gardner told The Associated Press in an interview. He said there is evidence of North Korean "actions and relationships that would meet the criteria of state sponsor of terror."
"Almost every North Korean provocation has been met with capitulation -- year after year, administration after administration," Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the AP in a written statement. He said he is working on legislation to relist North Korea.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the committee's top-ranking Democrat, was more measured. Despite North Korea's "very questionable behavior," he said the State Department has to judge Pyongyang by strict legal criteria. The North's record should now be reviewed, he said.
The State Department said North Korea remains among the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world, based on its nuclear detonations and ballistic missile and proliferation activity. It also is penalized for human rights violations and its status as a communist state. The department wouldn't say if a terrorism review was underway.
A 2015 Congressional Research Service report, intended to advise lawmakers, said re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism was unlikely to inflict significant economic punishment, particularly in the short term. The U.S. already severely restricts foreign aid, defense sales and exports of sensitive technologies to Pyongyang.
It warned that North Korea could respond by conducting more nuclear and long-range missile tests if it concludes the U.S. isn't interested in dialogue.
That isn't deterring U.S. lawmakers. A bipartisan bill that stalled in the House last year has been reintroduced, calling for the State Department to review a list of purported acts by North Korea, including assassinations of dissidents and weapons sales to militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. It requests a determination as to whether such acts constitute support for international terrorism.
The legislation also cites the 2015 computer hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the FBI blamed on North Korea. Hackers threatened movie theaters that screened "The Interview," a comedy parodying Kim Jong Un.
"It is time to put little Kim back on that list because he is a world terrorist and a threat to world peace," said the bill's Republican sponsor, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas.
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