WASHINGTON - North Korea has not been linked to a terrorist attack in more than two decades, but it is still on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Now, it may be on the verge of its coveted goal of getting removed for reasons having little to do with terrorism.
Meanwhile, Washington has what appears to be fresh evidence that Venezuela supported Colombian guerrillas that the U.S. considers terrorists. Yet the terrorism list does not include Venezuela, a major oil supplier to the United States.
Nearly three decades after its inception, the state sponsors of terrorism list is not just about terrorism. It has become a diplomatic tool to win concessions from U.S. adversaries eager to end the stigma and sanctions that come with the designation. It may also be too blunt a tool to be used against strategically important countries, even if the terrorism link appears clear-cut.
"Of course the list is political," said Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
The United States has many blacklists for people, groups and countries it deems unsavory. But the state sponsors of terrorism list has perhaps the highest profile, though only five countries are on it: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
Those countries designated by the U.S. face restrictions on foreign aid, a ban on defense sales and other sanctions that can hinder their acquiring U.S. technology or doing business with U.S. financial institutions.
The penalties can extend beyond U.S. borders. The United States will use its weight at the United Nations and world financial organizations to try to block assistance to designated countries. The designation could also discourage U.S. allies and multinational corporations from dealing with the designated nations.
By contrast, getting off the list is a sign of a return to the global community.
"This is exactly the purpose: to offer carrots and sticks to engage states and then to use this as a means to persuade them to desist from activities that we think are harmful to America," Hoffman said.
The president may rescind the terror designation by submitting a report to Congress that certifies a country has changed policies and has provided assurances that it will not support future acts of terror.
But terrorism often is not the only factor that determines whether a country will be removed.
Libya got on the list because the U.S. blamed it for terrorist attacks that killed Americans in the 1980s. But it took more than its pledge to stop supporting terrorism and pay compensation to the families of terror victims to get it off the list in 2006; it also had to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs.
James Lewis, a former State Department official who worked on sanctions in the Clinton administration, said the list gives the United States leverage on non-terrorism issues.
The message is: "Do the right thing and we'll take you off the list," said Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
That appears to be the case with North Korea. Kim Jong Il's government has not been tied directly to terrorism since its agents planted a bomb on a South Korean commercial jetliner in 1987. But there was little talk of removing the North from the list until it became a key point in international talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Many in Japan, the top U.S. ally in Northeast Asia, do not want the designation lifted until Pyongyang accounts for Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Some U.S. lawmakers also oppose lifting the designation and have proposed legislation that would make it harder for President Bush to do so.
But there may be little hope of reaching a nuclear agreement that does not include taking North Korea off the list.
"Clearly, the state sponsors of terrorism list looms very large in the North Koreans' thinking," said Sharon Squassoni, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It is a black mark. You don't want to be in the kind of company on that list: Iran, Cuba, Syria. It would be quite a step forward politically and symbolically."
Cuba's presence on the terrorism list has been questioned. It was added in 1982, during the Cold War, when Fidel Castro's government supported leftist insurgents. The State Department says Cuba continues to oppose U.S. counterterrorism policy and has granted safe haven to members of terrorist groups.
Opponents of the designation question whether Cuba should be on the list. But with a powerful anti-Castro Cuban community in the U.S., it would be politically difficult for a U.S. administration to take Cuba off the list.
Some lawmakers say Cuba's ally, Venezuela, should be added because of allegations that President Hugo Chavez has supported Colombian rebels. Computer files found in a leftist rebel camp in March implicated Venezuela as a guerrilla ally and have prompted criminal investigations. Venezuela denies the claims.
But while the Bush administration is highly critical of Chavez, it would have to pause before adding to the list a country that is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
Asked about U.S. lawmakers' call to list Venezuela, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "I'd steer people away from the notion that being put on the state sponsor of terrorism list is something that happens because it would be something people would like to have happen.
"It's based on a very specific legal standard, and, whether it's Venezuela or any other country, if they meet that standard, they'll be put on that list, and if they don't, they won't."
© 2008 Associated Press