Just when you thought it was safe to write a nice, fluffy piece honoring troops deployed worldwide on Thanksgiving, the Trump administration goes and puts the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The North Korean regime rejoins Iran, Sudan, and Syria on the list of countries “determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”
Trump spoke to reporters Monday before the cabinet meeting in the West Wing. “One of the primary goals of our trip was to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “Today, the United States is designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. It should have happened a long time ago. It should have happened years ago.”
The DPRK was added to the list in 1988 after blowing up a South Korean airliner, killing 115. In 2008, President George W. Bush removed the North from the list in an effort to try to elicit some nuclear weapons concessions. Judging by the rapid pace at which both Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program and his ballistic missile program have advanced, that effort failed. Back on the the list they go. Trump is right that they probably shouldn’t have come off it in the first place.
But in reality, this move is a turkey. It is purely political theater, meant more for domestic consumption than for the benefit of any foreign policy. It throws a chunk of red meat to the president’s most ardent supporters, but it does nothing to advance the cause of Korean nuclear disarmament.
The North Koreans simply aren’t in a position where they can provide any kind of support to terrorism abroad. President Trump did not cite any examples of support in the press conference announcing the move on Monday. Both Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cited Korea’s “assassinations on foreign soil,” presumably the February killing of Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam by nerve agent in the Kuala Lumpur airport. But that doesn’t really count as terrorism. The sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island aren’t acts of terror, they’re overt (or almost overt) acts of war. The 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment’s email servers comes closer, but still isn’t what we think of when we talk about terrorism.
As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted in the press conference with Trump, the move imposes few new sanctions. President Trump promised that the Treasury Department would announce “a new sanction” on Tuesday… “a big one,” he promised. That announcement included sanctions against “one individual, 13 entities, and 20 vessels.” The vessels, belonging six North Korean shipping companies, are suspected of transferring cargo, including oil, to other ships at sea in order to evade existing sanctions.
There are few sanctions left beyond a naval blockade that the U.S. can impose on North Korea. And without sanction (the good kind) from the United Nations Security Council, a naval blockade, I need not remind you, is an act of war.