Restoring North Korea to Terrorism Blacklist Dims Hopes for Talks

November 21, 2017

The central rail station in Pyongyang, North Korea, this month. President Trump has designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, reversing a move by the second Bush administration.CreditEd Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — President Trump’s re-designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism may have dashed cautious hopes in the region that talks and diplomacy would replace escalating tensions and bellicose threats, analysts said on Tuesday.

Despite a two-month hiatus in North Korea’s weapons tests, Mr. Trump has held to his policy of “maximum pressure,” restoring North Korea on Monday to Washington’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states, along with Iran, Sudan and Syria. The move will be followed by “the highest level of sanctions,” he warned.

Analysts said they doubted that new sanctions would make any real difference on the already heavily penalized country. If anything, they said, the designation will make diplomacy more difficult without increasing Washington’s leverage, warning that North Korea will probably take the naming and shaming as another reason to stick to its hard-line policy of developing and testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“It’s hard to see any real impact on North Korea, which has lived through all manners of sanctions for seven decades,” said Paik Hak-soon, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean research organization. “What it does instead is to send a clear message to North Korea that Trump is not interested in talks, another sign and reconfirmation that the Americans remain a hostile force.”

North Korea has yet to respond to Mr. Trump’s move.

But its leader, Kim Jong-un, has been notoriously sensitive to outside attacks on his regime. He called Mr. Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” in September after the president threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it endangered the United States. His government has also said it would launch more ballistic missiles in the Pacific, and could conduct an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test there, depending on Washington’s behavior.


“As long as it is technically ready, North Korea will test missiles again anytime,” said Yun Duk-min, a former chancellor of South Korea’s Korea National Diplomatic Academy who now teaches at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “It is following its own schedule in weapons development, regardless of whether it is re-designated as a terrorism-sponsoring country.”


But Mr. Trump’s announcement gives the country an excuse to justify a new weapons test and “deflect blame onto the U.S.,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the Boston area.


Such prospects do not bode well for the policy of South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has sought to ease tensions as the country prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February.



An anti-North Korea protest in Seoul this month. Conservative South Koreans welcomed Washington’s re-listing of the North as a terrorism-sponsoring nation. CreditAhn Young-joon/Associated Press


Many of Mr. Moon’s progressive supporters believe Mr. Trump’s provocative style and focus on military options have heightened the risk of war on the Korean Peninsula.


On Tuesday, Mr. Moon’s government stressed cooperation with Washington, deflecting any suggestion that there is a disconnect between the allies on policy.


“Despite the re-designation, there is no change in joint efforts by South Korea and the United States to try to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem,” its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.


Meanwhile, conservative South Koreans welcomed Washington’s re-listing of the North as a sponsor of terrorism, and in Tokyo, the support from Shinzo Abe, the hawkish prime minister of Japan, was straightforward.


“We welcome and support the act, as it is expected to increase pressure on North Korea,” he told reporters on Tuesday.


The Trump administration says it will keep pressuring North Korea until it agrees to talks on negotiating away its nuclear programs. But the North insists those weapons are not for bargaining.


President Xi Jinping of China, who has been under pressure from Mr. Trump to do more to rein in its Communist neighbor, sent a special envoy to Pyongyang over the weekend in what Mr. Trump called a “big move” to persuade the North to change course.


The envoy, Song Tao, returned home on Monday, apparently empty-handed. Neither China nor North Korea has indicated that Mr. Song met Mr. Kim.


“North Korea knew that its re-designation as a terrorism-sponsoring state was coming, and it needed to show that it will not bend under pressure from neither the U.S. nor China,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. “I think North Korea is ready to launch another long-range or medium-range missile or a satellite rocket.”



A photo released by North Korea’s state news agency shows Song Tao, center, an envoy sent by President Xi Jinping of China, during a visit to North Korea. Mr. Song returned home on Monday, apparently empty-handed.CreditKorean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


Washington originally put North Korea on the blacklist after a bomb believed to have been planted by North Korean agents blew up a South Korean jet in 1987, killing all 115 people on board. In 2008, President George W. Bush delisted North Korea as part of a deal aimed at ending its nuclear programs. The deal almost immediately disintegrated.


During his trip to Asia this month, Mr. Trump hinted that he was giving serious thought to restoring North Korea to the list.


He met with relatives of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea decades ago to train Korean spies in language and culture. The families hoped that the terrorism blacklist could be used as leverage to gain the return of their missing family members.


“I feel like we finally came back to the starting line,” Sakie Yokota, 81, whose daughter was taken by North Korean agents when she was 13, told the newspaper Sankei Shimbun after the announcement in Washington. “I’d like to watch how the abductees are rescued amid this stronger pressure.”

While in South Korea, Mr. Trump spent a significant portion of a speech to the National Assembly detailing a “hell” of human rights abuses in North Korea.

That speech and his re-designation of North Korea as a terrorism sponsor were reassuring to Choi Sung-yong, who leads a group of families of fishermen and other South Koreans believed abducted by North Korea decades ago.

“We were a bit disappointed that President Trump met the Japanese families, but not us Korean families, during his Asia trip,” Mr. Choi said. “In South Korea, not even the government pays much attention to our case.”

He added, “I hope the re-designation will help revive interest in our families.”

But families of the 1987 Korean Air disaster expressed little faith that any official shift would help their cause, a more complete investigation of the bombing.

“We are stilling waiting and struggling for the truth to be told on what really happened,” said Park Eun-kyong, a daughter of the flight’s captain. “The authorities put North Korea on and off the terror list without asking our opinions. They are putting it back on the list again. I doubt it will make any real difference for us.”

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.






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