U.S. President Donald Trump has returned North Korea to his country’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” The move is part of the strategy to exert “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang and force it to denuclearize. While the decision will allow the United States to impose more sanctions on the reclusive regime, it will not have much impact. It is, however, a statement of U.S. intent that will reassure allies and unnerve others.
The State Sponsors of Terrorism list was created in late 1979, at one of the peaks of the Cold War, to punish governments that the U.S. accused of “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism.” The original list included Libya, Iraq, South Yemen and Syria. North Korea was added in 1988 for a long list of offenses: Its agents blew up a South Korean airliner in 1987 in an attempt to derail the 1988 Seoul Olympics; it provided weapons to terrorist groups that were willing to pay; and it provided asylum for members of Japan’s Red Army Faction radicals.
President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in 2007, a contentious decision that was part of the six-party talks and was supposed to indicate a U.S. commitment to ending its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang. The subsequent breakdown of the six-party process did not affect North Korea’s status, however. While some argued for relisting, such a move had to meet legal standards and there was little indication that, heinous as North Korean behavior may have been, it was backing terrorists.
Trump claimed that “North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.” He was likely referring to the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, who was killed with the deadly nerve agent VX in the Kuala Lumpur airport earlier this year. The killing qualified as terrorism, as did the use of a chemical agent in a public space. North Korea’s resort to cyberattacks would also qualify. Another item in the indictment was the death of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. student who was arrested and imprisoned while visiting North Korea and died just after his release last summer. While tragic, it is unlikely that this act meets the standards required to justify listing, although they are vague.
The continued detention of individuals kidnapped by North Korean agents would seem to qualify. Trump met the families of Japanese abductees during his visit to Tokyo this month, and those relatives have expressed support for the relisting of Pyongyang. Japan has expressed support for the move: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his administration sees it as a way to increase pressure on North Korea and that he values the solidarity that Washington shows with Tokyo.
South Korea backed the decision “as part of the international community’s joint efforts to take North Korea to the path of denuclearization.” China was less sanguine. Given the “highly sensitive” situation, Beijing still calls for a return to negotiations and the avoidance of any move that would prevent that from happening.
That bland declaration masks growing irritation in Beijing. China was pressed by Trump on his recent visit to do more to get North Korea to the negotiating table, by which he meant Beijing should increase pressure on Pyongyang. China insists it is doing all that it can and is reluctant on principle to press harder. Instead, China dispatched a high-ranking envoy to Pyongyang to brief the leadership on the recently concluded 19th Communist Party Congress and issues of mutual concern. He was snubbed, getting no meeting with Kim, a signal that Chinese influence in North Korea is limited. The U.S. decision to follow that gesture with renewed sanctions is thus a double slap in the face.
Given the virtual nonexistence of trade between the U.S. and North Korea, the terrorism listing is of limited coercive value and is mostly symbolic. Still, the U.S. Treasury Department followed Trump’s announcement with more sanctions on Chinese companies “with long-standing commercial ties to North Korea” along with several North Korean firms. That move will deny those entities access to the U.S. financial system and freeze their U.S.-based assets.
Ultimately, only China, which conducts about 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, has real leverage over Pyongyang, but even Beijing’s leverage is limited. North Korea believes it needs nuclear weapons and it has endured real hardship to acquire a nuclear capability and will continue to do so to keep it. Equally worrisome is the failure of the U.S. — and others — to indicate what diplomacy will look like. Merely demanding that Pyongyang give up its weapons and comply with U.N. resolutions is no solution. Threatening war is no answer either. Pressure must be in the service of a wider strategy; of that, there is little sign.