April 21, 2017 2:44 am JST

US could relist North Korea as state sponsor of terrorism

Tillerson issues threat as Washington builds pressure on Pyongyang

TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writer

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson © AP

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. could once again list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Wednesday, becoming the first cabinet member of the Trump administration to publicly comment on the matter.

"We're reviewing all of the status of North Korea, both in terms of state sponsorship of terrorism as well as all the other ways in which we can bring pressure to bear on the regime in Pyongyang to reengage," Tillerson said.

The U.S. first designated North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism in 1988, following the bombing of a Korean Air jetliner the year before. The country was dropped from the list in 2008 under George W. Bush in exchange for submitting to a nuclear inspection. His successor, Barack Obama, held off on relisting the North under his policy of "strategic patience" -- which Vice President Mike Pence declared this week to be over. 

The U.S. currently brands Iran, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.

Joining these countries' ranks would greatly hurt North Korea's standing in the international community. It would also freeze any non-humanitarian aid from the U.S. to the North, as well as financial assistance from international organizations. It might also open the doors for a greater range of military options on the country, including a preemptive strike.

Finance will be central to any sanctions on North Korea. In 2005, the U.S. named Banco Delta Asia in China's Macau territory as a primary money-laundering concern. As a result, North Korea-related funds at the bank were frozen, and U.S. financial institutions were banned from doing business with the bank. Institutions in other major countries also became more cautious about North Korean ties.

The move is believed to have dealt a significant blow to North Korea at the time, making it difficult for the country to collect payment for its exports and secure dollars to pay for its imports. It was a likely factor in pushing North Korea to participate in six-party talks over its nuclear development.

But North Korea has since developed other sources of foreign currency, such as sending an army of laborers abroad. "Tough sanctions are already in place, and it's unclear what impact the terrorism designation would have," a Japanese official said.

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday discussed a proposed statement to condemn North Korea for its Sunday missile test. The U.S. pushed for language demanding North Korea immediately make moves toward denuclearization and abandon any future nuclear tests.

Of the 15 members of the Security Council, China joined the U.S. and 12 others to vote for the statement. But Russia vetoed it because it departed from past statements by not calling for a dialogue-based solution.

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