US President Donald Trump on Monday declared North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, even as his top diplomat said Washington has not given up hope of a negotiated end to the nuclear standoff with Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Trump promised a rapid escalation of US Treasury sanctions against the North after adding its name to a terror blacklist previously led by Iran and Syria.
“Should have happened a long time ago. Should have happened years ago,” Trump said.
He cited the death of US student Otto Warmbier, who had been held in a North Korean jail, and the assassination by nerve agent of Kim’s elder half-brother in Kuala Lumpur in February as reasons for the move.
However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said sanctions and diplomacy could still pressure Kim into talks on nuclear disarmament.
“We still hope for diplomacy,” he said, adding that punitive measures were already having a significant impact on Pyongyang’s economy.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea, but an editorial in the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun ahead of the announcement described Trump as a “mentally deranged money-grabber” who was leading the US down an “irretrievable road to hell.”
The White House has said it will not tolerate the North’s testing or deployment of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to US cities.
Experts believe Pyongyang is within months of such a threshold.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that “I welcome and support [the designation] as it raises the pressure on North Korea.
However, there was a more restrained response from South Korea, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the US measure was “part of the international community’s common efforts to bring North Korea to the path of denuclearization through strong sanctions and pressure.”
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also backed Trump’s decision.
“Kim Jong-un runs a global criminal operation from North Korea peddling arms, peddling drugs, engaged in cybercrime and of course threatening the stability of region with his nuclear weapons,” Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.
China said “more should be done” to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis through dialogue.
“We still hope all relevant parties can contribute to easing tensions, that the relevant parties can resume talks and [adopt] the correct track to resolving the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue and consultation. More should be done in that regard,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang (陸慷) told a regular briefing.
Some analysts warned of a possible backlash.
“North Korea will consider it as a thing next to a declaration of war,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University for North Korean Studies in Seoul. “There is a possibility that it may retaliate by test-launching an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] in the near future.”
However, US officials say their main hope is that Pyongyang will back down, in the face of what Tillerson described as an inexorable increase in economic and diplomatic pressure.
“We know that there are current shortages of fuel based upon what we can gather anecdotally and also from certain intelligence sources,” Tillerson said. “We know that their revenues are down,” he said. “So I think it is having an effect. Is this the reason we haven’t had a provocative act in 60 days?”
Trump also said his declaration would be the start of a two-week period of announcements — starting with a “very large” US Treasury sanctions measure — that would amount to a “maximum pressure campaign.”
US officials see the designation — which was removed by then-US president George W. Bush in 2008 — as a way of ratcheting up pressure on other states and foreign banks to enforce the sanctions.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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