The U.S. government officially put the North back on the list of state terrorism sponsors on Nov. 20 , citing its repeated support of terrorist acts. U.S. President Donald Trump vowed that the designation would be followed by “the highest level of sanctions” against Pyongyang. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Dr. Andrei Lankov about the implications of the U.S. decision and the possible countermeasures by Pyongyang. A Russian specialist in North Korean affairs, Dr. Lankov has recently visited the U.S. and met with high-ranking U.S. officials including Ambassador Joseph Yun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, to discuss and share his views on the North Korean nuclear problem.
RFA: What kind of message do you believe Trump wants to send to Kim Jong Un by putting North Korea back on the list of state terrorism sponsors after about nine years?
Lankov: He wants to send a message that pressure will keep growing. Frankly, I am not happy about it, since it is not a good idea to use the accusation of ‘terrorism sponsorship’ as a tool to punish a particular regime for some policies U.S. does not like.
RFA: Why do you think Trump made the decision at this particular time?
Lankov: I think that the idea is to show the North Korean leaders that, no matter what, the U.S. pressure will keep mounting until they come to the negotiation table, ready to make the concessions
RFA: For the past couple of months North Korea hasn't take any provocative action, prompting speculation that they might seek some kind of dialogue with the United States. Do you think Trump's action will prompt the North Korea to resume military provocations such as ICBM or nuclear tests?
Lankov: I suspect that the relative quietness of the recent two months is a result of some technical issues the North Korean engineers are struggling with. If you look at their track record, you will see that they always test a lot less in the last quarter of every year. At any rate, the decision demonstrated to the North Koreans that the U.S. would continue to increase pressure, irrespective of what North Korea is doing. For the Trump administration the only acceptable solution is denuclearization, but for the North Koreans it is, essentially, a non-starter.
RFA: North Korea has been under serious U.N. economic sanctions for many years for their nuclear and ballistic missile tests. With North Korea put back on the terrorism sponsor’s list, do you think it can inflict further economic damage to the Kim Jung Un regime or is it just a symbolic action?
Lankov: The return of North Korea to the terrorism sponsors’ list will have little impact on its economy, since the U.S. and its allies have nearly exhausted all sanctions options. To put it differently, since all conceivable sanctions are being implemented, there is nothing which can be done on top of what is being done. However, the position of China remains decisive. If China begins to implement sanctions thoroughly, North Korea will be in deep trouble.
RFA: Announcing his action on North Korea, Trump vowed “the highest level of sanctions by the time it's finished." What would that be?
Lankov: As I have said, pretty much everything has been applied. The last round of sanctions are the ‘secondary sanctions’ that is sanctions against individuals and corporations which trade with or invest into North Korea. Once introduced, these sanctions will make any dealing with North Korea highly risky for any businessperson worldwide. However, such sanctions will also damage U.S. trade relations considerably.
RFA: In response to the U.S. action, don’t you think Kim Jong Un will take some sort of strong countermeasures?
Lankov: I do not expect any “strong countermeasures.” The maximum he can do is to launch a missile to the unpopulated areas of the South Pacific and conduct a thermonuclear explosion there. More likely, however, the North Korean leaders will just do some more nuclear tests and ICBM test launches.
RFA: With North Korea and U.S. racing toward a collision course like this, can China or South Korea play any role in defusing the mounting crisis on the Korean peninsula?
Lankov: China is doing what it can: It is unusually hard on North Korea, perhaps in hope that North Korea will bow to the pressure, and will come back to the negotiation table, so the chances of confrontation will be reduced. In regard to South Korea, I do not see what it can do, apart from trying to veto a military operation.
RFA: Given the ever worsening ties between the U.S. and North Korea, is it still possible that the Trump administration can resume any meaningful dialogue or negotiations with the North during its term?
Lankov: There is such a hope, certainly. I can even see President Trump starting such talks in near future. However, for the time being he is going to keep increasing pressure on Pyongyang – perhaps, even in order to soften it up, and squeeze some concessions before the talks begin.