President Trump put North Korea back on a U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism” Monday, a largely symbolic move that administration officials said will increase pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Trump said the designation will be followed Tuesday by a new round of sanctions against Pyongyang and that other penalties will be announced in coming weeks.
North Korea “must end its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile development and cease all support for international terrorism — which it is not doing,” Trump said at the start of a Cabinet meeting.
Trump administration officials cited the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother with a nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia last February as an act of terrorism.
President George H.W. Bush first put North Korea on the State Department’s list in 1988, and his son President George W. Bush removed it 20 years later in a failed bid to convince Pyongyang to stop its nuclear program.
The Obama and Trump administrations both slapped economic sanctions on North Korea and, increasingly, on governments that do business with it. But Pyongyang has continued to conduct both ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests, stepping up the program significantly in the last year.
It’s not clear why new sanctions would change that dynamic. Most of the punishments Trump can impose under the state-sponsor legislation already are in place, or would involve suspending aid programs that don’t exist.
But administration officials said the designation carries symbolic weight and will add pressure on countries that still do business with North Korea, including those that buy its weapons or employ its workers. China is Pyongyang’s largest trading partner.
“We are continuing to turn the pressure up,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the White House. “It may disrupt and dissuade some third parties from undertaking activities with North Korea.”
Tillerson said he still hopes diplomacy can resolve the impasse, but said he believed the “campaign of pressure” was helping, citing reports of oil shortages in the secretive state.
“I don’t want to suggest to you that the designation is suddenly going to put a whole new layer of sanctions on them,” Tillerson said. He said it would close loopholes in previous penalties.
Officials said the Treasury Department could impose heftier fines on companies working with North Korea that also use U.S. banks. Treasury has imposed $12 billion in fines on European banks that do business in Iran, for example.
The Treasury Department also could add new entities or individuals to its sanctions list or use authority from an executive order to deny entities that do business in North Korea the ability to operate in the United States.
North Korea joins only three other countries on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Sudan and Syria. Discussions to put North Korea back on the list began last year under the Obama administration.
Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert, said the goal now is to increase pressure on those who do business with North Korea, such as Chinese banks or Russian oil companies. Adding North Korea to the terrorism list would otherwise have no impact.
“I don’t think [the list] changes their views regarding nuclear weapons [and] missiles one iota, nor their readiness to use targeted assassinations,” he said.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea now at the Heritage Foundation, said the state-sponsor designation was a “powerful label” that helps build a moral case to persuade even companies doing legitimate business with North Korea to go elsewhere.
“It’s upholding U.S. law,” he said. “It’s identifying the nature of the North Korean regime.”
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