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Trump just put North Korea back on the state sponsor of terrorism list

But it's really all about the nukes.

President Trump Holds Cabinet Meeting At The White House
US President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with members of his Cabinet November 1, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Tensions between the US and North Korea are already high, but President Donald Trump just took a major step to ratchet them even higher.

"Today the United States is designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting on Monday. “Should have happened a long time ago." The administration will reveal new sanctions that it will slap on North Korea Tuesday.

Trump announced the measure as part of his “maximum pressure campaign” to punish and isolate North Korea for continuing to build missiles that can potentially hit the US mainland with a nuclear weapon.

North Korea will now join Iran, Sudan, and Syria as the only countries on the state sponsors of terrorism list. The designation bars them from receiving US development assistance, bans defense sales to them, restricts exports of items that could potentially be used for military purposes, and also places tougher financial restrictions on them, according to the State Department.

There’s no question that North Korea is a brutal, dangerous, and unpredictable regime. Still, its actual support for terrorism — which is the reason to place any country on the list — is debatable.

Administration lawyers noted that North Korea had to commit more than one act of terrorism to warrant placement on the list. Trump administration officials assert that the February assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother in Malaysia was an act of terrorism.

Administration officials also discussed the possibility of calling the brutal death of Otto Warmbier — the 23-year-old US citizen released by North Korea this summer who returned home in a coma — an act of terrorism. However, there was no agreement as to whether or not his death, as horrible as it was, constituted terrorism, the Washington Post reports.

North Korea was on the state sponsor of terror list before. President George W. Bush included the country in his 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech along with Iran and Iraq. But he removed Pyongyang as part of talks designed to get the country to stop its nuclear program. Clearly, that plan didn’t work — North Korea tested a missile capable of hitting most of the US on July 28 — and Trump is, in a way, going back in time.

The move is unlikely to stop North Korea’s nuclear program

It’s been clear for a while that Trump thinks North Korea supports and engages in terrorism.

"The regime has made numerous lethal incursions in South Korea, attempted to assassinate senior leaders, attacked South Korean ships, and tortured Otto Warmbier, ultimately leading to that fine young man's death," Trump said during a speech in South Korea earlier this month.

But there are few reasons to believe that putting North Korea back on the list will change its behavior in any meaningful way.

First, North Korea has no interest in giving up its nuclear program, and likely won’t change course based on this designation.

“There’s pretty broad agreement that Kim Jong Un wants a nuclear arsenal, including a nuclear-armed ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] that could put cities and targets in the United States at risk, to deter an attack and to ensure survival and prevent regime change,” Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told my colleague Zack Beauchamp in September.

And second, North Korea is already very heavily sanctioned by the US, China, and Europe — and yet it continues to improve its missile and nuclear programs. That’s part of the reason the Trump administration keeps asking China to put even more pressure on North Korea, especially since China accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s trade. China just sent an envoy to North Korea this month, a development Trump called a “big move” on Twitter.

So putting North Korea on the list may inflict even more financial pain on the country, but it’s unlikely the move will achieve Trump’s ultimate goal: stopping North Korea’s nuclear program.