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U.S. relisting of North Korea as state sponsor of terror seen as symbolic step with limited impact

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Staff Writer

The decision by the United States to relist North Korea’s “murderous regime” as a state sponsor of terrorism hands Washington and Tokyo a symbolic victory, but will do little to solve the nuclear crisis roiling the Korean Peninsula, experts say.

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the designation, which he said “should have happened a long time ago,” and promised a fresh round of sanctions over the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

It will join Iran, Sudan and Syria on the blacklist after close to a decade-long absence. Pyongyang was taken off the list in 2008 as part of an attempt to salvage international talks aimed at halting the North’s nuclear ambitions. The talks, which involved six countries including Japan, collapsed soon after and haven’t been revived since.

“In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil,” Trump said in announcing the move.

The North has been blamed for the murder of leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother, who was killed in February with a suspected VX nerve agent in Malaysia, as well as the June death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who had been detained by the regime.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key supporter of Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure,” praised the decision Tuesday in Tokyo.

“We welcome and support the act as it is expected to raise the pressure on North Korea,” said Abe, who has long worked to address the issue of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. Family members of the abductees also hailed the move, saying they hoped it could help resolve the issue.

But the re-listing is unlikely to translate to a meaningful — or even needed — political win for Abe.

Abe “is not in a defensive position, he doesn’t need a victory at this moment,” said Kuni Miyake, a former diplomat and current president of the Foreign Policy Institute in Tokyo who is known to be close to Abe.

“We are facing a much, much more serious external threat from the peninsula,” Miyake said. “Of course it’s great to see that North Korea is listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. We welcome that. But is it a political victory for Mr. Abe? No, that’s probably not the main point of this issue.”

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera also lauded the designation, but warned that Kim’s regime would likely lash out “strongly” in response.

“We cannot deny that the North will resort to new provocative actions,” Onodera said. “It is important to be increasingly vigilant.”

North Korea has ramped up its weapons tests this year, conducting its largest atomic blast to date in September and launching dozens of missiles — including two over Japan that experts say are designed to carry nuclear payloads — as it seeks to develop a weapon capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

On Monday, North Korea issued a veiled threat of a nuclear strike on Japan, vowing to make the country “disappear at once” if Tokyo continues with what the North termed “war hysteria.”

“Japan itself will not be safe once a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary. “Everything of Japan to be involved in the war may disappear at once together with the U.S. military bases” in the country.

In the past, explicit threats to target Japan and U.S. bases on Japanese territory have been a persistent part of the North provocations. In October, it said it would bring “nuclear clouds” to the archipelago and in March the isolated state launched a barrage of missiles, claiming that it was training for a strike on U.S. bases in the Japan.

The terror designation is widely expected to add fuel to tensions between the three nations, which remain on alert for further North Korean provocations.

Still, the breakneck speed of the North’s testing this year came to an abrupt halt after its Sept. 15 test of a second intermediate-range missile over Hokkaido.

The apparent lull has raised hopes that Pyongyang may be amenable to talks.

Some speculate that the hiatus, which has extended more than 60 days, signals the possibility of a diplomatic opening. However, U.S. officials and experts have dismissed this, noting that the halt was likely motivated by the harvest season rather than any detente by the North. The country usually mobilizes its soldiers and resources to help with this massive seasonal undertaking.

The North could also simply be biding its time, working to refine its weapons technology before making any show of force.

“The 60-day ‘pause’ in testing is not significant, as North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs continue even without tests,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former U.S. Treasury official and an expert in the use of targeted financial measures for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Ruggiero noted that media reports had cited the top American official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, as saying there had been “no signal” from North Korea amid the lack of testing.

“So I’m not sure what diplomatic breakthrough we are waiting (for) to happen,” Ruggiero said. “And even when North Korea has talked about negotiations, it has clarified it would be between nuclear powers rather than denuclearization talks.”

Mindful of past toppled regimes in Libya and Iraq, Pyongyang has ruled out any negotiations over its nuclear weapons — which it calls defensive — and has vowed not to talk with Washington until the U.S. rolls back its “hostile policy” toward the country.

“Testing was going to resume anyway but this gives a diplomatic excuse for North Korea to limit criticism from Beijing, Moscow and even Seoul when it resumes,” said James Schoff, an East Asia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

But much of the U.S. focus has been on the symbolic nature of the move.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday called the designation a “very symbolic move” with limited practical effects. But he also acknowledged the pause and held out hope for diplomacy.

With tougher sanctions in the pipeline, he issued a stern warning to the North: “This is only going to get worse until you’re ready to come and talk.”

Still, Schoff said Pyongyang “can say that the U.S. move clearly shows it is focused on regime change, and when combined with the large-scale three-carrier battle group exercise in the Sea of Japan last week, it looks even more like the U.S. is not interested in dialogue, regardless of what Tillerson says.”

Staff writer Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report