North Korea Returned to Terrorism State Sponsor List

Tougher sanctions on the way.

President Trump announced on Monday that “the United States is designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.” The designation, he said, “will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea and related persons, and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime that you’ve all been reading about and, in some cases, writing about.” North Korea is joining Iran, Sudan and Syria as designated state sponsors of terrorism.

The Treasury Department will be announcing additional sanctions on Tuesday, which President Trump claimed would “be the highest level of sanctions by the time it’s finished over a two-week period.”

According to the State Department’s website, countries determined to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism are designated pursuant to three laws: the Export Administration Act, the Arms Export Control Act, and the Foreign Assistance Act. Such a designation results in restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over exports of dual use items, and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. However, North Korea has little to lose in those respects, given that it is already so heavily sanctioned by the United States that there is a lack of any direct trade with or assistance from the United States today. What is important is that, as the State Department’s website explains, the designation “also implicates other sanctions laws that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with state sponsors.” The latter would provide President Trump with an additional tool to use in imposing secondary sanctions on countries or firms doing business with North Korea. China is undoubtedly taking notice. 

President Trump cited the North Korean regime’s threats of nuclear devastation, support for acts of international terrorism including assassinations on foreign soil, and the tragic death of 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier attributed to his imprisonment and mistreatment while in North Korean custody as reasons for the designation. “It should have happened a long time ago,” the president said. “It should have happened years ago.” 

President Trump’s action restores North Korea to its previous status on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The regime was first placed on the list in 1988, following the 1987 bombing of a South Korean air flight. North Korea was also accused of selling weapons to terrorist groups and giving asylum to Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction members.

North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in October 2006, while it was still on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Two years later, near the end of former President George W. Bush’s presidency, North Korea was removed from the list to help boost negotiations for a nuclear deal, including a preliminary agreement on measures to verify North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and some dismantling of its nuclear facilities. As usual, North Korea’s word turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. North Korea refused to allow inspectors to carry out sampling at its nuclear facilities. No agreement was finalized on verification. By the end of 2008, the six party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear issues ended in stalemate. However, North Korea was not placed back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

North Korea had no intention of negotiating in good faith to unwind its nuclear program. It took only four months into the Obama presidency before North Korea announced its second nuclear test. “Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation. It will not find international acceptance unless it abandons its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery,” former President Barack Obama said at the time. Other than pushing for toothless United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions and engaging in some tough rhetoric, which North Korea routinely ignored, the Obama administration stood by and continued to pursue its “strategic patience” policy. North Korea remained off the U.S. list of terrorism sponsoring states for the duration of Obama’s two terms in office, while North Korea conducted three more nuclear tests as well as missile test launchings.  

North Korea continued its provocative actions after President Trump took office. It conducted yet another nuclear test and test launched multiple ballistic missiles, including one believed capable of reaching the U.S. mainland and possibly able in the near future to deliver a nuclear weapon. However, this time the regime is dealing with a president who has already lost his patience. President Trump has combined a strong, credible military presence in the region with more economic pressure on the North Korean regime through a combination of the strongest UN and U.S. sanctions to date. He has managed to obtain more cooperation from China on this front in less than one year than Obama had managed to obtain in eight years. 

Just a week after the conclusion of his Asia trip, President Trump announced his decision to ramp up economic pressure even further with the new sanctions that will follow in the wake of returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The president had made the isolation of the North Korean regime a central focus of his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other government leaders. 

There are some so-called experts in and out of the U.S. government who claim that North Korea does not technically meet the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which requires evidence that a state has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” They are wrong. Aside from the examples cited by President Trump, North Korea has been implicated in supplying arms to Hamas, with Iran as the intermediary. North Korea has also helped Hezbollah and possibly Hamas in building their underground terror tunnels. North Korea has also provided missile parts and technology assistance to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran. In short, there is more than enough evidence that North Korea meets the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The leftwing Peace Action organization has predictably criticized President Trump’s decision. Jon Rainwater, Executive Director of Peace Action, called instead for “unconditional negotiations.” He declared that the “designation makes getting to the negotiating table, let alone securing an agreement, all the more difficult.” If that is so, then why didn’t the de-listing of North Korea for the last nine years yield any progress towards moving North Korea away from its current destructive path? Things have only gotten much worse during that time.

If what is past is prologue, we can expect the North Korean regime to use President Trump’s decision as a pretext for more fiery rhetoric and possibly a resumption of missile and/or nuclear tests following a relatively quiet period. But it would have only been a matter of time before the regime continued along this path anyway. Handling North Korea with kid gloves to lure them back to the negotiating table does not work, as we have learned repeatedly. President Trump does not want the United States to fall into that trap once again.