Long overdue, but also probably a lot more rhetorical than substantial. Citing the horrendous treatment of Otto Warmbier as an example, Donald Trump announced earlier today that he will reinstate North Korea to the Treasury list of state sponsors of terrorism. The change reverses the last vestiges of a nuclear proliferation deal that died years ago:
President Donald Trump on Monday said the U.S. is designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The designation “should have happened a long time ago,” the president said at the start of a Cabinet meeting. He cited the regime’s nuclear weapons program, acts of international terrorism, and the death of 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier of Cincinnati.
The designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on Kim Jong Un’s regime. Trump said the Treasury Department will announce additional sanctions on North Korea on Tuesday.
Yes, it should have happened years ago. Perhaps more accurately, they should never have been taken off the list in the first place. Recall that the Bush administration took Pyongyang off the list in October 2008 after a deal with the six-nation talking group that was supposed to denuclearlize the Korean Peninsula. Six months earlier, evidence had emerged that North Korea had possibly helped Syria to build a nuclear reactor that Israel later destroyed before it went operational. Supposedly, Kim Jong-il had begun cooperating on “disablement” and allowed for the verification processes sought by the IAEA, among others, but less than a year later Kim went back to threatening nuclear war. Two years after their removal from the terror list we discovered that they had been secretly enriching uranium all along.
The remaining years speak for themselves along North Korea’s nuclear track, but their terror support was also evident. Some incidents, such as the Sony hack, probably intended more to embarrass the US by making it look impotent, but others — such as the assassination of Kim Jong-nam with VX nerve gas — had clear terror motives aimed at dissenting ex-pats. Their continued arms trade with Cuba, among others, showed that they never intended to adhere to this agreement, but for some reason, we continued to do so. Why?
In part, it might have been because both the Bush and Obama administrations had hoped to keep diplomatic channels open. That hope should have expired when Pyonyang began conducting nuclear-weapons tests in 2012. But in part, it might have been recognition that more sanctions might not be meaningful. What was needed was less appeasement and more pressure on China to take meaningful action against its client state.
And that might be the real point of the designation:
A U.S. intelligence official who follows developments in North Korea expressed concern that the move could backfire, especially given that the basis for the designation is arguable.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kim could respond in a number of ways, including renewing missile or nuclear tests in “a very volatile environment.”
The move also could undercut Trump’s efforts to solicit greater Chinese cooperation in pressuring North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, the official said.
How well has that worked out over the last several years? Both the Bush and Obama administrations have used appeasement and cooperation with Beijing, and the result is that we’re on the cusp of an ICBM-wielding Kim Jong-un. That policy has clearly failed. The Trump administration is choosing to force China into making a choice about whether it wants to keep the Kims and have a war on the Korean peninsula, or force a change in direction that will keep them from having to deal with a nuclear Seoul and Tokyo. Appeasement hasn’t worked. At least the Trump administration has figured out that much, even if they’re not exactly the people in whom confidence rests to wield a deft touch on a tougher strategy.