President Donald Trump has designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, allowing the United States to impose additional sanctions but running the risk of inflaming tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile programs.
- Donald Trump says the move "should have happened long ago"
- The Treasury Department is set to announce additional sanctions
- Experts say the move is largely symbolic
The Republican President — who has traded personal insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un but has not ruled out talks — said the Treasury Department would announce the additional sanctions against North Korea later tonight.
"Today, the United States is designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism," Mr Trump told reporters at the White House.
"In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil."
The designation came a week after Mr Trump returned from a 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia in which he made containing North Korea's nuclear ambitions a centrepiece of his discussions.
"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," he said.
"It should have happened a long time ago, should have happened years ago."
North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons and missile programs in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of hitting the US mainland — it has fired two missiles over Japan.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later told a White House press briefing that the move is intended to help dissuade "third parties" from supporting and engaging Pyongyang.
"The practical effect of it is it may disrupt, and dissuade, some third parties from undertaking certain activities with North Korea, as it does impose prohibition on a number of other activities that may not be covered by existing sanctions," Mr Tillerson said.
Fears designation could backfire
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed the Trump administration's designation, adding Mr Kim ran "a global criminal operation".
"Peddling arms, peddling drugs, engaged in cybercrime, and, of course, threatening the stability of the region with his nuclear weapons," he said.
"So we strongly welcome that decision, and it mirrors the determination of the international community on bringing North Korea back to its senses, that we saw in Manila and Da Nang recently."
Experts said the designation would be largely symbolic, as North Korea is already heavily sanctioned by the United States.
Only three other countries — Iran, Sudan and Syria — have been designated state sponsors of terrorism by the US.
Some experts, as well as US officials speaking privately, believe 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".
A US intelligence official who follows developments in North Korea expressed concern the move could backfire, especially given that the basis for the designation is arguable.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr Kim could respond in a number of ways, including renewing missile or nuclear tests in "a very volatile environment".
The move also could undercut Mr Trump's efforts to solicit greater Chinese cooperation in pressuring North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, the official said.
In any case, they added, it will do little to open the way for US dialogue with North Korea, which China and others have been pushing for.