U.S. President Donald Trump's decision on Nov. 20 to reinstate North Korea on the list of state-sponsored terrorist nations came just days after he appeared to have taken some of the heat out of his confrontation with Pyongyang during his recent trip to Asia and reduced worries that he might launch a preventive war.
The decision should be seen within the context of his administration's "maximum pressure and engagement" policy that was announced in April, which is based on the premise that if enough pressure is applied to North Korea, it will return to negotiations on denuclearization.
The return of North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism after a nine-year absence had long been anticipated and had been pushed by the U.S. Congress. It is largely symbolic since Pyongyang is already under heavy U.S. secondary financial sanctions and additional sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council this year.
Most of the sanctions triggered by the president's decision have been covered by other sanctions in place. The U.S. Treasury Department followed up on Nov. 21 by announcing new sanctions against 13 Chinese and North Korean entities and 20 North Korean ships suspected of aiding Pyongyang's nuclear program.
The U.S. clearly hopes that the labeling of North Korea as a terrorist nation will persuade other countries, mainly in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, to cut financial, trade and even diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.
The timing of redesignation is noteworthy since it came shortly after a senior Chinese envoy went to Pyongyang and failed to gain a moratorium by North Korea on its nuclear and missile tests, an idea that has been pushed by Beijing as part of a "freeze on freeze" proposal that would suspend such testing in return for a halt to U.S. military exercises in South Korea. Trump had already rejected that proposal.
But the move appears to have undermined recent hopes that Trump would pursue a more conciliatory policy toward North Korea. During his Asian trip, Trump appeared to suggest he was open to the "engagement" aspect of his policy after he earlier undercut efforts toward a diplomatic solution, mocking them as a "waste of time." Trump declared in Seoul that he wanted to "make a deal" with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and invited North Korea to end its isolation and join the world community.
North Korea has not conducted a missile test since Sept. 15, although that may be because Pyongyang tends to reduce such activity during the harvest and winter months. But this quiet period also appeared to provide an opening to diplomatic dialogue. Instead, there are worries that the terrorist state designation will provoke Pyongyang to renew its missile tests or launch cyberattacks against the U.S. or South Korea.
The tough message that Trump has now delivered days after returning from Asia might be an attempt to put additional pressure on China and Russia to toughen sanctions against North Korea. It could also form part of a "psywar" operation, which combined with U.S. military exercises involving B-1 bombers and carrier fleets, that is meant to intimidate North Korea into stopping its nuclear and missile tests.
But it will also renew worries that Trump could yet try to push Pyongyang to carry out a provocative military action, such as its threat to conduct a nuclear test in the mid-Pacific, which could provide a legal pretext for the U.S. to launch a preventive attack against North Korea. At a minimum, Trump's latest action might convince North Korea to continue pursuing its goal of completing a fully capable nuclear force before it agrees to return to negotiations so it can bargain from a position of strength.
Trump's decision is a discouraging development for those in China and South Korea who want to promote dialogue with North Korea and comes after he faced signs of a pushback during his Asian trip.
Just prior to Trump's visit to Seoul, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that Seoul had no plans to conclude a formal military alliance with the U.S. and Japan, while it would not welcome additional Terminal High Altitude Air Defense batteries or participate in a U.S. regional missile defense network.
It was these pledges that helped end a year of friction between Seoul and Beijing over the initial deployment of the U.S. THAAD batteries in South Korea, which triggered a Chinese boycott of some South Korean goods and services. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has favored dialogue with Pyongyang, is now expected to visit China in December.
Japan also appears to be mending ties with China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, during which they agreed to hold a meeting with South Korea on the North Korean issue. The meeting raises the possibility that Abe, who has strongly supported Trump's policy of more pressure and sanctions on North Korea, might soften his position and adopt the measured approach advocated by Beijing and Seoul.
Without the support of China, South Korea and Japan, Trump may find it difficult to launch a preventive war against North Korea on his own, since he emphasized during his trip the importance of regional cooperation in handling the North Korean issue.
There are developments at home that are also reducing the chances of a preventive war. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recently told Congress that there are "no good military options for North Korea" and that a U.S. invasion of the country could result in a "catastrophic loss of lives" in South Korea and place Japan and Guam at risk.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is said to be the strongest opponent in the Trump administration of launching a war against North Korea and he would play a key role if Trump ever decided to launch a nuclear strike. Gen. John Hyten, the head of Strategic Command, said on Nov. 18 that he would refuse a launch order from a president if he believed that order to be illegal. Even as Trump was returning from Asia, the U.S. Senate held the first congressional hearing since 1976 on the presidential authority to use nuclear weapons.
There is also skepticism among the American public about the need to go to war despite alarmist media coverage about the North Korean threat. Surveys show that public opposition to a war increases when the high casualty figures are mentioned.
There are concerns in Washington that the Trump administration's focus on North Korea may be undermining U.S. strategic interests elsewhere in the region. With Trump relying on China to help "solve" the North Korean nuclear issue, he has backed down on criticism of Beijing's activities in the South China Sea, for example. Some Pentagon analysts believe that Beijing welcomes Trump's preoccupation with North Korea because it is successfully diverting his attention from Chinese expansion in Asia and they argue that the president should give a higher priority to this issue rather than North Korea.
There is clearly growing pressure at home and abroad for Trump to change course away from a confrontation with North Korea. Whether the relisting of North Korea as a terrorist state represents a commitment by Trump to a peaceful long-term policy of "maximum pressure and engagement" or else suggests the prelude to something far worse remains an open question.
John Burton, a former Seoul bureau chief for the Financial Times, is a writer and editor based in Washington.