Will North Korea Lash Out Over State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation?

The decision by US President Donald J. Trump’s administration to designate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, while of questionable efficacy, marks a justified increase of pressure from Washington on Pyongyang, according to Atlantic Council analysts.

In the latest move in an ongoing diplomatic crisis between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s growing nuclear arsenal, North Korea was placed back on the US Department of State’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list on November 20. North Korea joins Iran, Sudan, and Syria on the list.

North Korea was a designated state sponsor of terrorism from 1988 until 2008 when then-US President George W. Bush removed it from the list in an attempt to facilitate a dialogue on reducing Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. That attempt proved futile.

After a series of recent incidents—the murder of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam with a nerve agent, the harsh treatment of US student Otto Warmbier during his captivity in North Korea which eventually led to his death, and continual tests of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a nuclear device—North Korea was put back on the list.

On November 21, the US Treasury further ramped up pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime by announcing further sanctions, targeting the country’s Chinese supporters.

While the move to label Pyongyang a state sponsor of terrorism is valid, according to Atlantic Council analysts, the comprehensive sanctions packages on North Korea from both the United States and the United Nations (UN) render the designation largely symbolic. Further, they cautioned, it could open the door to retaliation from Kim Jong-un, further escalating the crisis.

Atlantic Council analysts responded to the White House’s decision to designate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. Here is what they had to say:

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“North Korea’s behavior since the ascent of Kim Jong-un in 2012 certainly makes a case for putting it back on the terrorism list. The murder of [Kim’s] brother in Malaysia using chemical weapons; the death of Otto Warmbier; and recent practice of, in effect, taking US hostages, not to mention the brutal murder of [Kim’s] uncle and dozens of senior North Korea political and military elites whose loyalty he questioned taken together point to ruthless, terrorist behaviors.

“As a practical matter, however, given the comprehensive sanctions adopted after North Korea’s ICBM and sixth nuclear tests, and those already legislated by the US Congress in terms of secondary sanctions, I am not sure how much more we can isolate and penalize [Pyongyang] by putting them on the terrorist list. Just about all of the measures banned—like receiving US foreign assistance or World Bank loans—are either highly unlikely or already covered by other sanctions. However, the moral opprobrium and reinforcing the degree to which North Korea is an isolated, rogue state outside international norms and rules is an important statement.

“This political move to return them to them to the terrorist list comes at an interesting moment. Pyongyang has been quiet for more than two months with regard to missile or nuclear tests, so Kim Jong-un will take this as a very hostile act, and may use it as an excuse to launch more missile or nuclear tests or other provocative actions.”

Jamie Metzl is a nonresident senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“Donald Trump is absolutely correct to call North Korea what it is—a state sponsor of terrorism. How else should the United States describe a country that terrorizes its neighbors with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; fires missile over Japan in complete contravention of UN resolutions; executes rivals abroad; and keeps 120,000 of its own people in brutal and deadly work camps in what the UN has called a ‘crime against humanity’? The George W. Bush administration took a calculated risk when it took North Korea of the list of state sponsors or terror when trying to curb the country’s nuclear program. It is now beyond time to recognize that risk has failed and North Korea should be returned to the list.”

Todd Rosenblum is a nonresident senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] is one of the most heinous regimes of modern times, and sanctioning its bad behavior is essential for international order. But being heinous, and even assassinating its own people, is different than being a state that sponsors international terrorism. We dilute the power of the state sponsors list when we add nations to it because they are awful and acting irresponsibly in unrelated areas. We will have a hard time tightening international sanctions on North Korea if we confuse our tool kit.”

Christine Wormuth is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience.

“Placing the DPRK on the state sponsor list is smart and deserved, and is the next turn of the screw in terms of the administration’s pressure strategy. In light of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam and the horrific treatment of Otto Warmbier, North Korea deserves to be put back on the list.”

Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“Reinstating North Korea on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is fully justified, if only by the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, orchestrated by North Korean agents on Malaysian soil using prohibited VX nerve gas. The move is largely symbolic, however, since North Korea is already under heavy US financial sanctions as well as the additional sanctions imposed earlier this year by the UN Security Council. The president’s decision could be used as a pretext by Pyongyang to carry out renewed missile or nuclear weapons tests, ostensibly in retaliation for Washington’s ‘provocation.’”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Christine Wormuth and Robert A. Manning

Image: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) listens to US President Donald Trump speak during a meeting with his Cabinet at the White House in Washington, US, November 20, 2017. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)