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Trump announces designation of North Korea as state sponsor of terrorism

‘Should have happened a long time ago. Should have happened years ago,’ Trump says.

Updated

President Donald Trump announced Monday that the U.S. will designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, saying the move would ratchet up sanctions against the repressive state to “the highest level.”

“We will be instituting a very critical step and that will start right now,” Trump said in remarks at the top of a Cabinet meeting at the White House. “Today, the United States is designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Should have happened a long time ago. Should have happened years ago.”

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North Korea joins three other nations — Iran, Sudan and Syria — on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea was previously added to the state sponsors of terrorism list in 1988 and removed from it in 2008 amid nuclear negotiations spearheaded by former President George W. Bush.

The Trump administration has said for weeks it was considering reinstating the designation, and the president was expected to make a decision during the Asia trip that ended last week. In his announcement, Trump invoked the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was imprisoned by North Korea and died earlier this year after returning to the U.S. in a coma, as well as “the countless others so brutally affected by the North Korean oppression.”

The step could exacerbate tensions among North Korea, its neighbors and the U.S. amid escalating concern about the isolated nation’s nuclear ambitions. And while North Korea is among the world’s worst actors on the state level, designating a nation as a sponsor of terrorism is a legally complex question, and there is some question about whether or not North Korea qualifies.

“In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil,” the president said Monday as he explained the designation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, addressing reporters at Monday’s White House press briefing, characterized the designation as largely symbolic given the heavy sanctions already leveled against North Korea and the government of Kim Jong Un both by the U.S. and by the United Nations Security Council, although he said some “loopholes” could be closed as a result of the step Trump announced Monday. He declined to offer a preview of the additional sanctions Trump said would be released Tuesday by the Treasury Department.

Tillerson also praised steps taken by nations around the globe to further economically isolate North Korea.

“It’s taking effect all around the world, and we think as it takes effect, again, this just continues to tighten the pressure on the Kim regime all with an intention to have him understand this is only going to get worse until you’re ready to come and talk,” he said.

Tillerson said a key factor in the U.S. decision to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism was the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader, last February in an airport in Malaysia. The murder, carried out by women who wiped Kim Jong Nam’s face with VX nerve agent, is believed to have been orchestrated by North Korea. Tillerson said Monday that the U.S. wanted to wait on an investigation into the killing before officially placing North Korea on the state sponsors of terrorism list.

Asked if Russia, which has been accused of carrying out political assassinations with chemical weapons, should similarly be considered a state sponsor of terrorism, Tillerson replied that “we have to consider every country that would take a substance like that and use it illegally.” He declined to say whether the U.S. is considering placing Russia on its state sponsors of terrorism list.

Tension between the U.S. and North Korea has escalated in the months since Trump’s inauguration, with the Kim government launching a series of ballistic missile tests, some of which have traveled over Japan. While the missile tests have not approached U.S. territory, their trajectories and power have indicated that North Korea might possess a missile capable of striking the continental U.S.

In September, North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, detonating a warhead seven times larger than the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II. It remains unclear whether North Korea has successfully miniaturized a warhead small enough to fit atop one of its ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental U.S.

The uptick in nuclear activity from North Korea has been accompanied by the typical bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang, including threats to wage all-out war against American allies South Korea and Japan, as well as against the U.S. itself. Trump, though, has shown a willingness to respond in kind, threatening at one point this past summer to retaliate against North Korea with a “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” pointedly refusing to take the option of military action against the Kim leadership off the table.

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Trump’s announcement drew quick praise from Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy. Gardner wrote on Twitter: “This is the right decision and something I’ve been pushing the Administration to do. #NorthKorea murdered Otto Warmbier and tortures and imprisons their own citizens. We cannot tolerate this evil.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in his own statement that “there’s no doubt the Kim regime thrives off spreading mayhem around the globe, and today’s decision is another step in the Administration’s effort to bring the greatest pressure to bear on the Kim regime.” He added that it is “better to address this threat now than to let it grow any further.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in a statement that North Korea has exhibited “a consistent pattern of terror” and that listing the communist nation as a state sponsor of terrorism “rightly exposes the Kim regime’s utter disregard for human life.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wrote on Twitter that “I strongly support this decision.”

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