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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
In a long-awaited decision on Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that North Korea, after nine years, would return to Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT).
Telling press that “it should have happened years ago,” the President accused Pyongyang of “repeatedly” supporting acts of international terrorism, making reference to the February assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, and the death in June of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier.
North Korea now joins Iran, Syria, and Sudan on the list of SSOTs – though the U.S. signaled last week that Sudan may soon be removed from the list.
Under Section 324 of the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act 2017,” signed into law on August 2, the decision was put in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s hands, but it’s obvious that the President wanted to make the announcement himself. The administration has been hinting for weeks that North Korea would return to the list and, with dialogue between the U.S. and DPRK seemingly a long way off, the move was the next step in Washington’s “sanctions and pressure” campaign.
But beyond the rhetoric, what impact will the relisting of North Korea actually have? Does it make dialogue between the U.S. and the DPRK more – or less – likely? And how does it change the existing sanctions regime?
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
Andrea Berger: The decision is not surprising. Congress has been trying to force the Executive’s hand on this point for some time, placing deadlines on their deliberations over relisting the DPRK. While there was probably an active discussion within the State Department over whether the legal grounds for re-designation existed, I assumed that if a rationale could be crafted, that the White House would be delighted to bless the return of North Korea to the list.
What did surprise me was the timing. I was expecting the decision either earlier, to align with Congressionally-mandated deadlines, or later, to align with the conclusion of the court case in Malaysia.
Anthony Ruggiero: The decision was not a surprise, the only surprise was it took this long, in the face of North Korea’s interactions with Syria and Iran (both are on the state sponsor of terrorism list), including proliferation activities, and Pyongyang’s threat to conduct a “9/11-style” attack on theaters that played “The Interview.” It is unclear how the U.S. could justify keeping North Korea off the list.
Cha Du-hyeogn: The Trump administration wants to send the strongest possible message that now is not the time to talk with North Korea under the current circumstances. Therefore, it wasn’t unexpected. There is no other way to impose tougher measures in terms of diplomatic protocol except for blacklisting Kim Jong Un and the inner circle of the North Korean regime.
Why now? In my opinion, there is a chance that Washington wanted to wait to watch the results of Song Tao’s visit to Pyongyang. In general, the U.S. wanted a positive answer from Pyongyang including a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, with Song Tao delivering the U.S. opinion on the North Korean issues. But the meeting with Kim Jong Un floundered.
If the U.S. had announced the re-designation during the visit of Song Tao, it could have hit a sour note in China’s effort to pursue dialogue and sanctions simultaneously. Therefore, Washington helped Beijing save face.
Chang Booseung: The possibility of re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism has been mentioned many times in the past. Whenever that possibility surfaced, those in the U.S. government who opposed the re-designation used to say that such re-designation requires recent and repeated acts of international terrorism. However, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam this year in Malaysia probably tipped the balance of the debate within the United States.
Chris Green: No, it does not come as a surprise. Redesignation as a state sponsor of terrorism has been under discussion for years – more or less ever since the day North Korea was delisted – and since it opens up avenues for additional unilateral sanctions at a time when most of North Korea’s major sources of revenue have been sanctioned in one form or another, it would be more surprising if the Trump administration had decided not to do it.
As for the specific timing, sec. 324 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a piece of legislation that deals punitively with Iran, North Korea and Russia, specifies that President Trump needed to make a call on the redesignation within 90 days of the act becoming law. It became law in early August, so either the decision was actually made at the beginning of November, or he’s running late.
Daniel Pinkston: It doesn’t surprise since there were reports and rumors about the reinstatement. I think U.S. domestic politics and bureaucratic politics were a factor in the timing, and that is not something I follow close enough to assess.
Duyeon Kim: This does not come as a surprise. It was long overdue, but, the timing is terrible. The administration should have waited until immediately after Pyongyang’s next test or provocation. Announcing this during a quiet period only gives Pyongyang an excuse to provoke again and it lessens the chances to probe diplomatic openings.
What is surprising, though, is the timing. Trump seems to be dashing the hopes of those who favor dialogue with North Korea at incredible speed.
His Asia tour was regarded by many as a possible inflection point – Trump could become either more conciliatory or stay the course of “maximum pressure and engagement”, but without increasing pressure on North Korea any further. Instead, Trump has made it clear that he is not going to negotiate with North Korea – or if he is, then he will try to drive sufficiently tough bargaining in order to extract material concession from North Korea- which is rather unprecedented from North Korea’s point of view.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The decision does not come as a surprise. It has been long expected since the Obama administration, and the expectation was also high within the first two to four months after the Kim Jong Nam assassination. The redesignation was likely to follow on the heels of Trump’s visit to Asia, however, it will be highly frustrating to the “doves” in the U.S. and South Korea.
Former diplomats and people involved in a conciliatory strategy towards North Korea will be frustrated at the timing of the announcement, as the North Korean regime had ceased provocation, it was high time for them to arrange secret meetings with the North to discuss the prospects of engagement or dialogues. Moon Jae-in government’s plan to offer peace initiatives to the DPRK will be affected.
Joshua Stanton: Not really. First, North Korea never acknowledged its pre-2008 terrorism or convincingly renounced future acts of terrorism. Second, the 2008 rescission of its listing had nothing to do with the evidence of its sponsorship of terrorism; it was strictly a diplomatic bargaining chip in exchange for promises that Pyongyang promptly broke.
Third, as my report showed, Pyongyang not only reneged on the nuclear deal in 2008, it increased its acts of terrorism with a wave of assassinations and arms sales to terrorists.
In several cases, in fact, U.S. federal courts entered judgments finding that North Korea was responsible for sponsoring acts of international terrorism not long after its rescission. Pyongyang would later order the Sony cyber-terror threat against the U.S. homeland, which was a tipping point for many members of Congress.
The assassination of Kim Jong Nam made a re-listing almost inevitable. In August, by a nearly unanimous vote, Congress set an October 31 deadline for State to decide whether North Korea met the criteria for re-listing, which resolves the timing question. Congress let that deadline slide a few days for Trump’s visit to Asia, but it would have reacted angrily to a decision not to re-listing Pyongyang, or to continued delays.
The redesignation depended on whether the dialogue behind the scenes succeeded or failed. And also the U.S. made the announcement right after Song Tao came back empty-handed after his visit to Pyongyang. There are all connected.
Mintaro Oba: I’m not surprised the Trump administration decided to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. This has been a cause celebre for conservatives since the Bush years, and Trump gains political points with the right wing for doing this. Trump also wants to look like he was doing something concrete on North Korea, and he had few other options left.
Cha Du-hyeogn: I don’t believe that this will accelerate provocations. There would have been either a missile and nuclear test before long if they were technically ready. But I believe that Pyongyang has remained silent for two months as they need more technical preparations. In this case, there have no way to show power in a direct manner. But it is expected that the North might launch cyber attacks against major U.S. websites, as they did to Sony Pictures.
Chang Booseung: A typical response is expected. North Korea tends to calibrate its responses to the strength and significance of the actions taken by the other side. Remember, the United States removed North Korea from the list of the state sponsors of terrorism in 2008 after North Korea fulfilled its obligations under the September 2005 Joint Declaration of the Six-Party Talks: disabling and declaring the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
Since then, North Korea has restarted its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles, and now is about to fully accomplish its goals. North Korea may lash out at Trump with invectives and curse words in response to this relisting.
But on balance, from the perspective of North Korea, the balance sheet of the nuclear game with the United States in the past nine years appears in the black rather than the red. North Korea will go its own way as its strategic demands dictate.
Chris Green: North Korea will react rhetorically, of course, but that is neither here nor there. Otherwise, it will keep doing what it has been doing: slow but consistent pursuit of its strategic goals largely irrespective of the efforts of the international community to stop it.
The North Koreans did not go into 2016, the beginning of the current period of intense development and testing, without considering the probable responses of the U.S. and wider international community to its actions; they will have noted the possibility of redesignation as a state sponsor of terrorism, and evidently concluded that they can live with it.
Given the lack of levers in the hands of the United States at present, I conclude the same.
Daniel Pinkston: I think North Korea media will denounce it as illegitimate, and respond that the U.S. is the “world’s greatest terrorist state.” North Korea also will cite this as more proof of the so-called “U.S. hostile policy towards North Korea.”
Go Myong-hyun: The U.S. action comes at the end of the rather long hiatus in North Korean provocations of more than two months. Independent of whether North Korea was refraining from provocations in order to elicit a positive response from the United States or not, North Korea risks losing the momentum of its provocation strategy if it doesn’t respond to the new U.S. pressure measures as soon as possible.
Worse, it could even create the perception that Kim Jong Un can be deterred- this would weaken his bargaining position in the future. North Korea’s dilemma is about whether to test an ICBM at this moment or not, which could possibly invite U.S. military retaliation in return.
Joshua Stanton: Oh, the usual histrionics, I suppose. I’ve predicted that Pyongyang would do increasingly scary and dangerous things as its capacity to threaten us increases. Regardless of State’s decision today, Pyongyang would have escalated its weapons tests and attacks as soon as the harvest and training seasons ended. There’s a solipsistic reflex that Pyongyang only acts in response to our stimuli.
I believe that there’s a design behind almost everything Pyongyang does. The North Koreans aren’t infantile or suicidal, although it benefits them to cultivate that impression. True, at times they seem to combine tactical brilliance with strategic blunders, but at least give them credit for having a long game and playing it.
Pyongyang could slow down the completion of the nuclear force as worrying about that they could face tougher sanctions, but the North may decide to push ahead with the plan and test-launch an ICBM within this year at the earliest or next January at the latest to achieve its aim.
Mintaro Oba: North Korea will use this designation announcement as another opportunity to decry the so-called U.S. “hostile” policy. But I would be surprised to see it go beyond the normal rhetoric on state media.
Andrea Berger: I do not believe that this designation will significantly shift the already substantial obstacles to negotiations, in one direction or the other. The decision certainly sends strong messages about the direction of U.S. policy towards North Korea. But any message that it does send will probably only cement Pyongyang’s existing views about the state of play, thereby reinforcing existing barriers rather than erecting new ones.
North Korea may try to tie the listing decision to the issue of resuming negotiations on nuclear and missile issues, but in my view doing so would largely represent a rhetorical justification for Pyongyang’s wider, prevailing disinterest in negotiations.
Anthony Ruggiero: Ambassador Joe Yun said there is “no signal” from North Korea despite the positive rhetoric from the Trump administration on a diplomatic solution. There is still the outstanding problem of the U.S. wanting to talk about denuclearization and North Korea wants talks amongst nuclear powers. Even “talks about talks” cannot bridge that divide.
Cha Du-hyeogn: I don’t think this decision can be an incentive in the short term as it considerably and diplomatically attacked the North. This the part of the U.S. policy of putting maximum pressure and sanctions until Pyongyang shows a change in their stance.
The North faces sufficient sanctions and pressure, and the redesignation can speed that up. If the North feels the pressure, it may help bring Pyongyang to negotiations.
Chang Booseung: North Korea will come to the negotiating table when the carrot it wants is dangling in front of its eyes, or massive physical power forces it to do so. The relisting of North Korea provides neither.
Chris Green: All other things being equal, North Korea will pursue negotiations either once it has achieved its immediate military-strategic aims and/or when it finds that it needs time to rebuild its financial position following the current period of intensive capital investment. Since North Korea cannot borrow money internationally, it has to live off income. There are limits to what it can do given the restrictions imposed by this fact.
Duyeon Kim: I don’t think it would affect Pyongyang’s thinking about negotiations because it’s not a big enough stick to cause the regime to change its calculus in any meaningful way. Pyongyang’s actions and words show that it’s not interested in negotiations right now, that nothing will change this for the time being, and that it will only come out on its own terms and timetable.
If we continue along this general trajectory, the only two instances that might bring Pyongyang to the table is after it feels technologically confident—perhaps if that milestone means completing survivable and reliable nuclear-tipped missiles—or if the North is squeezed tight enough that Kim Jong Un fears that a collapse is imminent.
Go Myong-hyun: North Korea wants to negotiate with the United States, it just doesn’t want to discuss its denuclearization. Its goal is to be acknowledged as a nuclear state, and today’s designation sends the message to Kim Jong Un that there will be none of the kinds of negotiations North Korea was used to in the past.
North Korea is now compelled to react to U.S. pressure, either by upping the ante in terms of provocations or by modifying its terms of negotiations to make it more agreeable to the United States. It is likely North Korea will opt for the former rather than the latter, but that incurs the risk of crossing the putative redline by the United States. North Korea and the United States could not be farther away from the negotiations in the short run.
Hoo Chiew Ping: I think it will have no effect on North Korea’s intention to consider negotiations. It is not clear whether Kim Jong Un will resume his father’s tactic in trading denuclearisation for delisting.
I think it’s highly unlikely: the stage of nuclear weapons development is different and more advanced now, and the U.S. government should have learned not to reach a deal with North Korea with such a petty exchange. It can be incorporated into their hostile propaganda against the U.S.
Joshua Stanton: I don’t think it makes any difference at all in the short term. North Korea has repeatedly declared its unwillingness to negotiate a freeze or denuclearization. I think the odds of a negotiated settlement are bleak, but if there’s any chance at all, it lies in putting the regime in Pyongyang under existential pressure. Today’s decision is a part of building that pressure.
Kim Hyun-wook: It’s not an incentive. North Korea will test-fire an ICBM in response to the measure, and the U.S. will raise the intensity of a UN Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang will threaten to target the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile. So, there is high chance that tensions will rise.
Mintaro Oba: North Korea has clearly concluded, based on Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and pressure campaign, that the United States isn’t serious about engagement. The relisting will confirm those impressions and make it even less likely that we’ll see any substantive negotiations any time soon.
Andrea Berger: Given the international and unilateral sanctions authorities currently available to the U.S., it does not appear that North Korea’s return to the state sponsors of terrorism list will open up sanctions possibilities that did not already exist.
Instead, I would expect to see more sanctions – especially financial ones – rolling off the assembly line, with the corresponding justifications referencing the array of deplorable conduct (such as involvement in ‘international terrorism’) that Pyongyang is engaged in.
I would also expect to see the narrative of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism actively incorporated into U.S. messaging to foreign countries about sanctions implementation.
Anthony Ruggiero: The re-listing should make it easier to convince countries to end or curtail commercial and diplomatic relationships with North Korea. The next action should target major Chinese banks and Chinese networks that facilitate North Korea’s sanctions evasion.
The Treasury Department should issue fines against Chinese banks, similar to actions taken 2012-2015 against European banks for Iran sanctions violations, that clarify Chinese banks must stop these transactions or face further significant penalties.
Cha Du-hyeogn: The redesignation is symbolic. I’d rather consider it as another strong message to UN members which have trade relations with the U.S., urging them to sever trades with the North. Therefore, there is an indirect effect in this perspective. This could be pressure on those who tend to stand neutral on sanctions.
The follow-up measures may be financial sanctions like the case of sanction on Banco Delta Asia (BDA). The U.S. tracks down the [illegal] accounts and put pressures indirectly on the country maintaining financial transactions with the North. Consequently, there could be a measure on illegal bank accounts and the second one could be the ways to impose disadvantage on the countries conducting financial transactions.
Chang Booseung: A practical effect of the relisting will be almost nil, just as the removal of North Korea from the list had given no specific practical benefit to North Korea. However, it will freeze the atmosphere for dialogue with Pyongyang at least for a while.
President Trump said, “the Treasury Department,” when he mentioned the follow-up measures for North Korea. It must have been reassuring to Pyongyang but annoying to Beijing, because it implies that the thrust of the follow-up measures will be financial: imposing financial sanctions on the Chinese private companies that have transactions with North Korea.
Chris Green: At this point, the impact will be limited. It is primarily symbolic. It does not constitute a strategy for dealing with the North Korea problem — not even close — and should not be considered as such.
Daniel Pinkston: In practical terms? I don’t think very much at all. However, we should watch to see if other countries or firms reassess the risks and costs of their North Korea relationships and ultimately sever those ties as a result. Trump? Ask Trump directly, but good luck in receiving a credible answer.
Duyeon Kim: SSOT is a political tool and won’t have any groundbreaking impact anytime soon. But it is a useful political tool that would make it taboo for other countries to interact with North Korea, so the practical effects might appear later down the road.
This means SSOT helps and adds to Washington’s maximum pressure campaign of further isolating the country in order to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table and for Washington to gain more leverage during future negotiations. Because of this, relisting North Korea would irritate the regime and give it an excuse to provoke or up the ante or both.
I would imagine follow-up measures mean actions in a phased approach that eventually isolates North Korea completely. Basically, a complete economic and diplomatic embargo. But here, of course, Chinese and Russian participation are both the key and the biggest challenge.
Go Myong-hyun: Sanctions related to the state sponsor of terrorism designation are already in place against North Korea either as part of counterproliferation measures (ban on export of dual-use goods, etc) or economic/financial sanctions.
In this sense, the new action by the U.S. government will have little material impact beyond what North Korea is subject to already. But there will be significant impact on the political front, as it will undermine efforts by South Korea and China to engage in dialogue with North Korea.
Hoo Chiew Ping: Realistically and practically, the U.S. could use it to pressure regional players (including ASEAN members) to recognize/acknowledge and condemn North Korea’s state-sponsored terrorism activities.
This will provide a wake-up call to nations involving in permitting (if not supporting) North Korea’s terrorist activities and to restrain activities of their diplomatic missions all over the world. ASEAN, for instance, could incorporate North Korean state-sponsored threats in their Political-Security Blueprint (APSC–ASEAN Political-Security Community) which includes some articles on extra-regional security challenges to the region, though it may face China’s objection under the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) framework.
Joshua Stanton: I’ve seen the reports that the administration will announce new sanctions tomorrow. I don’t have any inside knowledge of what those might be, but take a look at Executive Order 13224 as a possible authority for new designations and asset freezes. Putting North Korea back on the terrorism list will close some significant loopholes in the sanctions that Congress had not yet legislated, but the symbolic impacts are also very important.
First, it tells wavering states in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia that we’re deadly serious about cutting off Pyongyang’s finances. Second, it emphasizes that same message to the financial industry by clarifying the transaction licensing requirements that apply to Pyongyang.
Third, it sends some necessary messages to Pyongyang. The generals need to understand that the world is closing in, that Kim Jong-un is leading them to destruction, and their chances are better without him. Pyongyang must know that we will hold it accountable for its crimes, that its immunity is over, and that we are not (contrary to the boasts of its propaganda) living in fear or awe of its threats. All of this must be combined with an expressed willingness on our part to enter good-faith disarmament negotiations, but we’re at least a year away from building the pressure necessary for that.
Kim Hyun-wook: The sanctions on the North passed by the House and the Senate contain almost all possible measures including suspending crude oil supplies to the North, kicking it out of the international financial network, and repatriation of North Korean workers.
But the measures haven’t been implemented by the U.S. administration, in the fear that China will not cooperate and the effects wear off without Beijing’s participation. Therefore, there is the possibility that the Trump administration pushes ahead with measures that have been passed by the Congress. And if the North test launches another ICBM, there is also chance that these sanctions can be included in the next UN Security Council resolution.
Mintaro Oba: Supporters of the re-listing are overstating the possible impact this will have on our North Korea pressure campaign. The sanctions authorities triggered by the designation don’t add much to what we have done and what we are already able to do.
This is a purely symbolic move. I’m not sure what steps the President could realistically take to follow up on this, but I expect they will be more cosmetic than substantive.