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Trump's latest move on North Korea is confusing experts

  • Washington's designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism sends mixed messages about the White House's commitment to diplomacy, experts said
  • Monday's action isn't expected to advance negotiations with Pyongyang

President Donald Trump's move to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism could undermine diplomatic efforts to halt the rogue state's nuclear aggression.

Pyongyang was previously on the list of terrorist states but it was removed in 2008 as China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. held talks with the isolated country on disabling its nuclear facilities. The talks eventually broke down but North Korea stayed off the list, until now.

The international community, including Seoul and Tokyo, support Trump's measure, saying the relisting will pressure Pyongyang to denuclearize. But experts aren't so sure: Many said the act, which will impose further sanctions on dictator Kim Jong Un's regime, sends mixed messages about Washington's intentions.

The world's largest economy has a policy of "maximum pressure" against the nuclear-armed nation, a strategy underpinned by economic penalties and trade restrictions with the aim of forcing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Monday's action, however, isn't seen as conducive to that line of thinking.

Pressure is presumably intended to lead to some type of diplomacy, but the designation will only confuse North Korea and make it difficult for its leadership to respond to future diplomatic signals, explained Daniel Sneider, visiting scholar at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

"I really don't understand what the point of [relisting] is if diplomacy is the goal," he said. "It doesn't suggest to me like this is a step meant to lead to talks with the North Koreans."

An activists wearing a mask with an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is posing next to a Styrofoam effigy of a nuclear bomb while protesting outside the North Korean Embassy on September 13, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.
Omer Messinger | Getty Images
An activists wearing a mask with an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is posing next to a Styrofoam effigy of a nuclear bomb while protesting outside the North Korean Embassy on September 13, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.

During a five-nation tour of Asia, the U.S. president expressed a willingness to talk with Kim despite previous assertions that negotiations were a waste of time. Speaking in Seoul earlier this month, Trump urged Kim to "come to the table and make a deal."

"With pressure building for talks, we are not sure if Trump's goal is to strong arm North Korea, or to torpedo any hopes of a diplomatic solution," Rob Carnell, ING's head of Asia research wrote in a Tuesday note. "We are confused. Is this intentional? We imagine North Korea will not take long to respond," he added, referring to Monday's move.

The reclusive state has maintained a low profile for the past two months and refrained from any nuclear belligerence — its latest act was firing a ballistic missile over Japan on Sept. 15. Kim had been widely expected to engage in some kind of provocation on Oct. 10, the 72nd anniversary of the ruling Workers Party, or Oct. 18, the beginning of China's 19th Party Congress.

This quiet period "almost certainly is a prelude to a major provocation," said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor in Korean studies at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. "The same old cycle of provocations followed by more concessions will resume at a time of Pyongyang's own choosing."

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