U.S. to Label North Korea a 'State Sponsor of Terrorism'

By Felicia Schwartz in Washington and Jonathan Cheng in Seoul Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump said the U.S. would reinstate its designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, a week after Mr. Trump finished a trip across Asia in which he pressed for more action to stifle Pyongyang's weapons development.

Continue Reading Below

Mr. Trump said during a cabinet meeting on Monday that the move will mark the highest level of U.S. criticism and "should have happened a long time ago."

He cited Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died in June shortly after returning to the U.S. from North Korean custody, as a reason for the action. Trump administration officials also have referred to other North Korean actions over the past year as terror acts, including Pyongyang's alleged role in the poisoning death of Kim Jong Un's half-brother in Kuala Lumpur's international airport using a banned chemical nerve agent.

North Korea was on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for decades before the George W. Bush administration removed it in 2008 to spur Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Trump said the designation amounts to an escalated effort by the U.S. to isolate the Kim regime, which he called brutal and murderous.

"This designation will impose further sanctions," he said, adding that Treasury measures would be significant, though he didn't provide details.

Continue Reading Below

He said North Korea "must end its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile development" and end its support for international terrorism.

The redesignation had been signaled by officials ahead of Mr. Trump's Asia trip and found quick support Monday among Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it "rightly exposes the Kim regime's utter disregard for human life and is an important step in our efforts to apply maximum diplomatic and financial pressure on Kim Jong Un."

Experts and former officials said redesignating North Korea could carry some added financial consequences, but the designation alone is unlikely to prompt significant changes in the current sanctions regime, after the U.S. imposed new measures this year to turn up the pressure on Pyongyang.

The designation would open the way for civil liability claims against Pyongyang for acts of terrorism against Americans and impose more disclosure requirements on the banking industry, said Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based lawyer who has helped draft U.S. sanctions against North Korea.

Beyond that, "the sanctions that would be imposed are not all that different from the sanctions that have already been passed through the U.N. Security Council," said Robert King, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights under the Obama administration. "There's nothing new that comes in."

Mr. King said Pyongyang is likely to regard the move as a direct affront. North Korea has protested previous efforts by the U.S. to personally sanction Mr. Kim and to label the country's leadership as violators of human rights, calling them acts of war.

"It only becomes a big deal if the North Koreans make it a big deal," Mr. King said. "If it passes and they don't say anything, then it's pretty ho-hum."

Officials with North Korea's United Nations mission couldn't be reached for comment on Monday.

Some experts wondered if the designation would have an effect on North Korea's behavior -- and if so, whether it might push Pyongyang toward a more bellicose posture.

"Re-designation is unlikely to change North Korean behavior or pressure the regime to return to the negotiating table, at least in the short run, " said Andrew Yeo, a politics professor at Catholic University of America in Washington. "In fact, it actually closes another door towards diplomatic engagement by creating an additional hurdle for normalizing relations with the United States."

Mr. Yeo said a North Korea's response could be another round of provocations, including possible weapons tests or cyberattacks.

Advocates of a terror designation have pushed for the relisting in recent months, pointing to North Korea's role in the deaths of the Mr. Kim's half brother Kim Jong Nam and of Mr. Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate who died six days after North Korea returned him to the U.S. in a coma.

Mr. Warmbier, who had traveled to North Korea on a tour, was held in a coma by Pyongyang authorities for more than a year, without any updated information to his family, before he was returned to the U.S. His parents have campaigned publicly for the U.S. to redesignate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, based in part on their son's death.

North Korea was on the list alongside Iran, Sudan and Syria, because of Pyongyang's roles in the attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a visit to Myanmar and the bombing of a Korean Air jet liner during the 1980s.

Months before he left office, Mr. Bush removed North Korea from the list and unveiled a package of humanitarian aid, inducements that were framed as part of a deal to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

North Korea has continued to defy international norms. Since 2008, it has conducted five nuclear tests, and launched scores of missiles, while threatening to destroy its neighbors and the U.S.

Advocates of the designation said that whatever its practical effects, the symbolism alone justifies the move. To leave North Korea off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror "would be untrue, as a matter of both the overwhelming evidence and the law," said Mr. Stanton, the Washington lawyer.

Louise Radnofsky and Michael C. Bender contributed to this article.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com and Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 20, 2017 14:26 ET (19:26 GMT)