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(News Focus) U.S. listing of N.K. as terror sponsor likely to dim outlook for talks: experts

All Headlines 13:57 November 21, 2017

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Nov. 21 (Yonhap) -- The U.S.' decision to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism may aggravate tensions and dim the outlook for a possible resumption of talks to resolve the current nuclear stalemate, experts said Tuesday.

On Monday (Washington time), U.S. President Donald Trump announced the re-designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. North Korea was put on the list in 1988 for its bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed all 115 people aboard. In 2008, it was taken off in exchange for progress in denuclearization talks.

"It should have happened years ago," Trump said. "In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil."

It has long been expected that the U.S. would put North Korea back on the blacklist after the North was found to have been behind the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of its leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur in February.

This is the latest in a series of steps that the U.S. has taken to intensify pressure on Pyongyang to force it to give up its nuclear and missile programs. But it is regarded as a symbolic action without much practical impact on the North, which is already facing a slew of sanctions.

Experts think the latest action might signal a U.S. push to double down on its sanctions and pressure for the time being.

"Trump hardly mentioned military options during his recent Asia trip but talked a lot about putting pressure (on the North) in coordination with the international community," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. "It seems that the re-listing the North as a state sponsor of terrorism demonstrates his will to place more emphasis on sanctions and pressure over any military action."

The move, however, comes at a time when cautious expectations are mounting that the U.S. might be pursuing direct contact with North Korea to discuss its nuclear issue following over a two-month hiatus in its provocations. The North has not carried out any major provocations since Sept. 15, when it fired an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan.

The mood for talks gained traction when it was reported that Joseph Yun, the U.S. top envoy on North Korea issues, said at a recent meeting that if North Korea halted nuclear and missile testing for about 60 days, that would be the signal Washington needs to resume direct dialogue with Pyongyang.

Against this backdrop, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his special envoy to North Korea on Friday, raising hopes that it might be intended to mend ties frayed for years over Pyongyang's defiant pursuit of nuclear and missile programs and provide a rare chance of a glimpse into what the reclusive state and its leader are thinking about the current security situation.

Joseph Yun, however, expressed his skepticism later about North Korea's possible change of behavior and cautioned against reading too much into the recent lull in its provocations.

"I hope that they will stop forever. But we had no communication from them so I don't know whether to interpret it positively or not. We have no signal from them," Yun told reporters on the sidelines of a forum held in the southern island of Jeju last week.

Xi's special envoy Song Tao also wrapped up his four-day trip to Pyongyang on Monday, but it has not been confirmed whether he met North Korean leader Kim, which was a focal point of his visit to the reclusive state.

Experts said that the latest move by the U.S. to put North Korea back on the terrorism blacklist might be the result of what many see as its failed efforts to resume talks with Pyongyang.

"Chinese special envoy Song appears not to have met Kim Jong-un and Trump also appears to have failed in his efforts to bring the North to talks," Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said. "The re-listing action might be part of the path towards more pressure down the road."

Cho Sung-ryeol, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, echoed the view, saying, "The latest re-listing decision reveals Washington's will to put on the back burner its push to improve relations with the North."

They worry that the North could respond to the U.S. move by resuming some kind provocations in the near future, a scenario that would result in a ratcheting up of tensions and the North frustrating efforts to open talks and negotiate its way out of the current stalemate.

Indeed, the North threatened harsh retaliation in March when there was a move in Washington to put it on the state sponsor of terrorism list. South Korea's spy agency also said Monday that it has detected activities around missile research institutes, raising the possibility that the North could conduct a ballistic missile test before the end of the year.

At a time when there is a wide gap in approach toward talks between the U.S. and North Korea, some experts said that chances are not high that the two will join negotiations any time soon.

"The U.S. is trying to have talks on the North's ultimate denuclearization, while the North is saying that its nuclear program should not be subject to any negotiation," Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said. "There is a huge gap that cannot be easily ironed out. ... Tensions on the Korean Peninsula will likely mount."


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