THE T LIST

North Korea Is Terrible, but Terrorist? Here’s What’s Behind the Trump Strategy.

Listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism is not about technical definitions. It is a political act, and it will have far-ranging repercussions.

David Corio/Getty

The State Department has added North Korea to its list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”

President Trump announced the action before his cabinet meeting Monday. “It should have happened a long time ago,” he said. “It should have happened years ago.”

He’s right. The question remains, however, whether it should happen now. In the past, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had, without question, “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” the State Department’s standard for inclusion on its list.

Accordingly, North Korea was first added to the list in 1988. The State Department of George W. Bush, hoping to encourage the Kim regime to give up nuclear weapons, removed it in 2008.

But what about now?

There are announced standards for listing of countries, but as Joseph DeThomas of Pennsylvania State University told The Washington Post, the designation is “more of an art than a science.”

“Political and diplomatic context plays a considerable role in such designations,” the former State Department official dealing with Iran and North Korea told the paper.

Trump on Monday cited three grounds for listing the North. In his remarks before the cabinet meeting, the president mentioned Pyongyang’s brutal treatment of Otto Warmbier, “a wonderful young man.” The president also said the regime was “threatening the world by nuclear devastation” and “repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.”

These enumerated acts, for exceedingly technical reasons, are hard to fit into the category of “international terrorism.” Take, for instance, the treatment of Otto Warmbier. His tearing down a propaganda poster seems innocuous to outsiders but was considered a serious crime in North Korea. Any North Korean would probably have been tortured if not killed for the same act.

The punishment for the prank was certainly excessive by foreign standards and violent—Warmbier was beaten into a coma from which he never recovered—but that savagery was not intended to influence anyone other than North Koreans.

The regime’s brutalization of the 22-year-old American student, therefore, was terrible, not terrorism.

Of course, Trump’s listing of North Korea is not about meeting technical definitions of terrorism or its sponsorship. The administration’s designation is a political act, and it will have far-ranging repercussions.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

“Re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism doesn’t add much to our efforts to pressure North Korea, but it is an action with symbolic value that will make it harder to get on a path toward denuclearization,” Mintaro Oba, once a State Department Korea desk officer, told CNN. “It will be seen in Pyongyang as confirming the United States is not serious about negotiations.”

Oba is correct that the sanctions that come with designation are minor. Moreover, many of them have already been put in place by the U.N. Security Council or by the Trump administration itself in its ground-breaking September 21 executive order.

Yet Oba is wrong on his main point. The designation, despite what he maintains, is unlikely to close off diplomacy. On the contrary, the pressure from the new measures—to be announced by the Treasury Department in a few hours—is the best hope for a negotiated settlement. Trump said Treasury will put in place “an additional sanction, and a very large one.”

Because the sanctions come from Treasury and because they are big, there is some possibility that the administration will target a large Chinese financial institution.

North Korea, we should know by now, is only going to give up its arsenal peacefully if regime leaders feel they have no choice. They will only come to that conclusion if they believe that the cut off of cash to Pyongyang’s coffers has been so complete that their system will fail for lack of funds.

Already there is anecdotal evidence that the Kimist state is feeling the effects of the Trump administration’s program of “maximum pressure,” in effect, a strangulation campaign. There are reports, for instance, that some of Pyongyang’s officials, part of the favored class, are not getting rations from their “special distribution channel.”

Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in the White House briefing room, referenced fuel shortages. Kim officials are now requiring an acceleration in “loyalty payments,” a sign of severe cash flow problems.

Trump’s strangulation policy is beginning to have an effect.

Because of the pressure, at some point Kim Jong Un—or at least those around him—will think the regime must come to terms with the United States in order to survive.