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Trump: US to Redesignate North Korea as State Sponsor of Terror

  • Peter Heinlein

President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Nov. 15, 2017, in Washington.

South Korea and Japan have welcomed a move by the United States to redesignate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism in order to put additional financial and diplomatic pressure on the totalitarian government.

South Korea's foreign ministry said Tuesday it sees the decision "as part of the international community's joint efforts to take North Korea to the path of denuclearization."

"It should have happened years ago," President Donald Trump said Monday from the White House, calling the Pyongyang government a "murderous regime."

WATCH: Trump on Pyongyang regime

The move, which will be formally announced by the State Department on Tuesday, returns North Korea to the department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Currently, the only countries on the list are Iran, Syria and Sudan.

Speaking on background, a State Department official said the Trump administration determined Pyongyang "has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism," including assassinations on foreign soil.

"These acts are in keeping with the DPRK's wider range of dangerous and malicious behavior," the official said, using the abbreviation for Pyongyang's official name.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said sanctions already in place against North Korea are having an effect and that there is still hope for diplomacy.

The United States put North Korea on the terror sponsor list in 1988, after North Korean agents blew up a South Korean civilian airliner, killing 115 people. But Pyongyang was removed in 2008 after they met benchmarks related to a nuclear disarmament deal.

WATCH: US stance on North Korea terrorism

The six-party disarmament talks collapsed a short time later, and North Korea declared the nuclear deal void. It has since conducted five more nuclear tests and steadily accelerated its ballistic missile program, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"We took them off that list for some specific issues we were seeking - mainly the destruction of the cooling tower and some disabling steps," says former Ambassador Christopher Hill, who led the U.S. delegation to the six-party nuclear talks. "In the meantime, by all accounts they seem to have the graphite-moderated reactor back in service. So they should be put back on the list."

Tufts University assistant professor of Korean Studies Sung-Yoon Lee told VOA that North Korea never should have been taken off the list, and that Trump's decision could prompt a response this week.

It gives North Korea the excuse to conduct another major weapons test and then to deflect blame onto the United States," Lee said. "North Korea will say this is a provocation, it’s unacceptable. But the question is, does this act have beyond symbolic opprobrium, does it have real practical financial costs? And I would say decidedly yes.”

Statutory requirements

Under U.S. law, a government must have "repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism" in order to be included on the Sponsors of Terrorism list.

While North Korea is widely regarded as one of the most oppressive governments in the world with respect to its own people, its involvement with international terrorism is less prominent.

But the label is accurate, insists Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

Specifically, Klingner cites recent cyberattacks against U.S. and South Korean targets, including the 2014 attack against Sony Pictures for producing a film critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He also mentions multiple North Korean assassinations and assassination plots, including the killing of Kim Jong Nam, Kim's half-brother, who was poisoned earlier this year at a Malaysian airport.

"While global attention has been on nuclear weapons and missiles, we must not lose sight of North Korea’s terrorist acts and gross violations of human rights," Klingner says.

Efforts intensified

The effort to reinstate North Korea to the terror list intensified after American college student Otto Warmbier died in June, shortly after being released from North Korean custody. Warmbier had been sentenced to 15 years hard labor for the alleged theft of a propaganda poster from his North Korean hotel.

At the request of Warmbier's family, six Democratic and six Republican senators later urged the State Department to consider reinstating North Korea to the list.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier watch as their son Otto's casket is placed in a hearse after funeral services, in Wyoming, Ohio, June 22, 2017.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier watch as their son Otto's casket is placed in a hearse after funeral services, in Wyoming, Ohio, June 22, 2017.

Although tragic, the Warmbier case does not seem to meet the statutory criteria for international terrorism, says Daniel Pinkston, who specializes in Northeast Asian security issues at Troy University in Seoul.

There is also a question about whether such a designation, especially at a time of heightened tension, could further complicate efforts to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear and weapons program.

But "those odds are basically at zero anyway," Pinkston says.

Impact of move

Returning North Korea to the terror list would mean it is subject to greater restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, defense exports and sales, and other financial transactions.

While Klingner argues the move would have a "tangible impact on regime finances," Hill says the strategic value of the move is "purely symbolic."

"If you're on the list, the U.S. cannot vote for you on a World Bank loan, for example, and cannot sell you military equipment. Well, we're not going to do that in either case," Hill says.

In the end, though, he says he "wouldn't lose any sleep" if Pyongyang were re-added to the list.

"I don't know the legal justification for putting them back on, but if it's just being an overall terrible pain in the neck, they more than qualify," Hill says.

Reporter William Gallo and State Department Correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report

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