Japan and South Korea welcomed US President Donald Trump’s move to put North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, believing it will add more pressure on Pyongyang to end its program to develop an intercontinental nuclear missile.

The decision announced on Monday allows the United States to impose more sanctions on Pyongyang for violation of UN Security Council resolutions over its weapons program.

“I welcome and support (the designation) as it raises the pressure on North Korea,”Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday, national broadcaster NHK reported.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said the decision is expected to contribute to the peaceful denuclearisation of the North.

However, some US officials said the move is largely symbolic as North Korea is already heavily sanctioned by the United States, a reality that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to acknowledge.

“The practical effects may be limited but hopefully we’re closing off a few loopholes with this,” he told reporters.

Trump, who has traded personal insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but has not ruled out talks, said the Treasury Department will announce additional sanctions against North Korea on Tuesday.

Who gets the crumbs? Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Trump’s November 2017 visit to Tokyo. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The announcement came a week after Trump returned from a 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia in which he made containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions a centrepiece of discussions with the region’s leaders, including Abe.

“In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

“This designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea and related persons and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime.”

“This designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea and related persons and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime.”

North Korea has made no secret of its plan to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland.

It has fired two missiles over northern Japan this year; threatened to lob a missile into waters off Guam, which is home to US military bases; and on September 3 conducted its sixth and largest underground nuclear bomb test.

The United States has designated three other countries – Iran, Sudan and Syria – as state sponsors of terrorism.

Some experts think North Korea does not meet the criteria for the designation, which requires evidence that a state has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

In his remarks, Trump remembered Otto Warmbier, the college student from Ohio who died in June shortly after his return from North Korea.

Warmbier was held in prison for more than a year on charges he removed a political poster from a hotel where he was staying in Pyongyang. His death caused outrage in the United States.

May backfire

A US intelligence official who follows developments in North Korea expressed concern that Trump’s move could backfire, especially given that the basis for the designation is arguable, Reuters reported.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said Kim could respond with more missile or nuclear tests. China – Pyongyang’s main ally – may also see it as a setback as it has been pushing for US talks with North Korea.

“I don’t see how this helps, and it might just be an important miscalculation,” said Robert Gallucci, the chief US negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis.

China hoped all parties could contribute to resolving the issue on the Korean peninsula peacefully, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a daily news briefing on Tuesday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

North Korea was put on the US terrorism sponsor list for the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight that killed all 115 people aboard. Former Republican President George W. Bush removed Pyongyang in 2008 as part of talks to end Pyongyang’s atomic weapon program.

Some members of Congress had been pushing for years for North Korea to be put back on the list.

US Representative Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, called Trump’s decision “an important step in our efforts to apply maximum diplomatic and financial pressure on Kim Jong Un.”

But Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the conservative Center for the National Interest, said the designation could prove counterproductive.

“Sadly, this action by the Trump administration just further cements a dangerous game of escalatory brinkmanship where neither side is giving the other any off-ramp,” he said.