Why Trump’s itinerary in Japan hints at re-listing N. Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson missed a statutory deadline to decide whether to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism (SSOT). Asked about this, State said it told members of Congress that Tillerson “expects to conclude his review and announce a decision within the month.” The Washington Times claims that “[t]here were rumors this week in the back hallways of the State Department that the administration was weighing a state sponsor designation.” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster hinted at the outcome when he said, “A regime who (sic) murders someone in a public airport using nerve agent — that’s clearly an act of terrorism.” It helps to watch his expressions and listen to his intonations as he answers.

If this isn’t quite conclusive, the President’s itinerary and personality also offer strong indications. As I write this, the President has just arrived in Japan to begin his grand tour of Asia. This blog shies from making predictions, but I’ll offer this one: before President Trump leaves Japan, he will leave little room for doubt that Pyongyang will go back on the SSOT list, and soon. I could be wrong, but if I am, it will mean that a man that even his harshest detractors call a master showman, political opportunist, and crowd pleaser isn’t really those things after all.

[Update: It looks like I was wrong. What a shame to waste such an opportunity.]

Reason 1: Congress

I can see why the administration would risk annoying Congress by missing its deadline if it’s only waiting a few days to notify foreign governments of its decision to re-list Pyongyang. Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and author of the bill that set the deadline, wasn’t happy that the administration missed it, but Congress will probably forgive the slight if the administration practices some good diplomacy and then promptly re-lists Pyongyang.

Congress will not forgive the administration if it misses the deadline and only then says that it will not put Pyongyang back on the list. Ted Poe, who chairs the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, fired off a stream of tweets on the day of the deadline calling for Pyongyang’s re-listing. He called on Congress to pass his bill, H.R. 479, which is pending in both Houses of Congress, and which would force the State Department to review its decision again 90 days after its passage. If Congress times it right, that deadline could come several months before State’s next annual report on terrorism is due in June.

If Poe’s bill doesn’t do the trick, I could suggest an escalatory strategy: Congress could force the State Department to report, item by item, on a long list of crimes for which Pyongyang is the prime suspect, whether it believes Pyongyang committed each of those crimes, and whether each crime was an act of international terrorism. Poe could also call State Department officials back to testify before his subcommittee. This could go on forever, but it shouldn’t. The evidence is too overwhelming to deny forever.

Reason 2: Diplomacy

It’s well known that Trump gets along famously with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. What isn’t as well known is that Abe has a deep personal history with the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. If you know this history, you’ll also know why Trump’s visit foreshadows his decision on re-listing North Korea as an SSOT.

In 2002, after years of rumors and suspicion, Pyongyang admitted that it had kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens from their home country to use as language instructors for its spies. It is also suspected in dozens of other disappearances that it has not owned up to. The abduction issue resonates powerfully with the Japanese people. Pyongyang’s failure to come clean on other suspected abductions, most notably that of Megumi Yokota, turned public opinion strongly against it. In time, it forced the government to sever most trade relations and dismantle Chongryeon, Pyongyang’s fifth column in Japan.

Japan also leaned on its American ally to pressure North Korea to return the abductees. Before 2008, the State Department said that the abductions were acts of terrorism* and that North Korea had to return the abductees to get off the SSOT list. But in 2008, in a grasp for a nuclear deal with Kim Jong-il, George W. Bush flip-flopped and took Pyongyang off the list without securing either an admission from Kim about the remaining abductees or a clear commitment to return them. Bush’s decision, for which we can thank Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill, shook the Japanese government, drew strong criticism from Abe, and damaged America’s image as Japan’s loyal ally. Bush even felt compelled to call two of Abe’s successors, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, to promise that the U.S. would “never forget the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea.”

Bush’s decision was a diplomatic face-plant. It betrayed one of our closest allies to appease our most mendacious enemy. It gained us nothing and cost us valuable time and the leverage of the sanctions we lifted. For what it’s worth, even Hill now thinks Pyongyang should go back on the list. He also offers this “expert” opinion: “I don’t know the legal justification for putting them back on.” I doubt he knew better in 2008.

Abe has been at the center of the abduction issue since 2002, when he was former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s chief negotiator and both men flew to Pyongyang, met with Kim Jong-il, and secured the return of five of the abductees. In 2007, during a previous term as Prime Minister, Abe strongly opposed rescinding Pyongyang’s SSOT designation until it released all of the abductees. Abe raised the abduction issue in 2012 when he was again elected Prime Minister. He got nowhere with the Obama administration, so in 2014, he tried his luck with Kim Jong-un, to the detriment of Japan’s fragile alliance with the U.S. and South Korea, but without result. This year, Abe asked Trump to meet with the abductees’ families.

“When I asked … he accepted on the spot,” Abe said this week. “He promised he would do his best to rescue the Japanese abduction victims.”

Trump mentioned Megumi during his speech to the UN general assembly. “We know it kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies,” he said.

Megumi’s mother welcomed the reference to her daughter. “I was really surprised, but it was great, and I’m thankful to [Trump] for bringing up the issue and putting it into words in front of representatives from around the world,” she said, according to Kyodo news agency. “Every word on the issue is a chance.” [The Guardian]

I’ve long thought that pundits make too much of personal relationships between world leaders who must base their policy decisions on cold calculations of national interests, but emotions and relationships seem to matter more to Trump than they do to ordinary world leaders. Trump and Abe have clearly hit it off, the abduction issue is clearly and understandably a big deal for Abe, and Abe is now in a strong position to ask Trump for favors (unlike Moon Jae-in, who isn’t).

Trump does not strike me as one who would leave Japan quietly without giving his friend the political boost of re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, or at least indicating an imminent intent to do so. If he’s the master of publicity that even his harshest detractors say he is, he’ll announce it at a press conference with Abe and the victims’ families. Then, he’ll watch with satisfaction as Abe’s approval rating soars, and as Abe uses that political capital to build up Japan’s defenses.


If this opportunity hasn’t occurred to Trump, it has occurred to his advisors and his hosts. McMaster says that when Trump meets with the families, he will “bring a message of sympathy [and] empathy” and ask the world, “Do you want a regime like this to have nuclear weapons?” Former Abduction Minister Eriko Yamatani — yes, Japan created a cabinet ministry for this — raised it with Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council’s top Asia policy staffer, when they spoke recently. The administration has reportedly said it will consider the abductions when it decides on North Korea’s SSOT re-designation.

Another report, sourced to “an administration official,” says that the declaration would come after Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing. How foolish it would be, and how unlike Trump, to squander this opportunity to mobilize public opinion in Japan and globally. At the very least, I’d expect Trump to foreshadow his decision in a press availability or a tweet shortly before or after meeting with the families. Then, Trump can let Rex Tillerson make the formal designation later, under section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act.

Reason 3: Itinerary

No single case has personified the abduction tragedy for Japan like that of Megumi Yokota. North Korean agents kidnapped Megumi from the shores of her home village when she was just 13. The Japanese government says she scratched at the hold of the ship during her passage into slavery while weeping for her mother. Some reports say that the decades of loneliness and suffering in North Korea drove her to madness and suicide. To add to this outrage, in 2004, Pyongyang sent back what it claimed were Megumi’s ashes. These turned out to be the ashes of a completely different expendable human being. The callous cruelty of it all almost defies description.

In 2006, George W. Bush met with Megumi’s mother, Sakie Yokota. This week, Mrs. Yokota will also be among the family members who will meet with President Trump. The abductees’ families haven’t forgotten their sense of betrayal by President Bush. Just last month, Megumi’s brother called for North Korea’s re-listing as a state sponsor of terrorism. Perhaps Donald Trump scheduled a meeting with Sakie Yokota to offer her an anguished explanation of regret for the State Department’s pedantic, nuanced, but sadly unassailable legal reasoning that it was wrong before 2007 and, no, sorry, the kidnapping of your little girl on the way home from badminton practice wasn’t terrorism at all. No, I didn’t think that, either. And if not, why would Trump meet with Mrs. Yokota at all?

Reason 4: Personality

I’ve never met Donald Trump, but my impression of him is that he doesn’t have a dramatis personae, he is a dramatis personae. What he loves most — what he feeds his ego on — is the adoration of crowds, which he buys with the currency of crowd-pleasing declarations, some of them taxpayer-funded. The Japan Times, citing Pottinger, reports that Trump is familiar with Megumi’s case and instructed him “to study North Korea’s human rights violations.” That’s a lot of material for one of the busiest men in Washington to cover. Trump could employ a (ahem) full-time Special Envoy to cover that brief.

No sentient human being can know what happened to Megumi Yokota and fail to be outraged, but in Trump’s case, we have good reason to predict how outrage will influence his decision. Early in Trump’s presidency, we learned that he experiences bouts of righteous, impulsive, paternal outrage. This may have goaded him into bombing Syria. We saw this tendency again in his outrage at the death of Otto Warmbier. Trump’s critics can make a case that he’s a terrible person, but this quirk of Trump’s personality makes it harder for them to make a convincing case that he’s an entirely terrible person.

The Coverage

The news coverage of Pyongyang’s potential SSOT re-listing isn’t as terrible than it was, say, three years ago. These days, one seldom sees “experts” claim that North Korea hasn’t sponsored any acts of terrorism, which is progress, given that several federal court decisions (among others) have found that evidence to be sufficient. Both The Guardian and Fox News accurately review the history of Pyongyang’s listing and rescission. Fox’s report appears to have drawn heavily on well-researched letters from members of Congress calling for Pyongyang’s re-listing.

This doesn’t mean that the coverage has been good. Most of it fails to even summarize the overwhelming and credible evidence implicating Pyongyang in multiple international assassination attempts, terrorist threats, arms sales to terrorist groups or cyber-terrorist threats. The Voice of America is nearly alone in doing so, but Claudia Rosett offers the most detailed recitation. AP writes that “[s]anctions from a terror designation are unlikely to inflict significant, additional economic punishment,” which is not a true statement. Nor is it quite accurate to say that re-listing would be “largely symbolic,” although Congress has moved this falsehood closer to the truth over the last two years by re-imposing some (but not all) of the SSOT sanctions through legislation.

It is true that other recent actions by Congress, the Treasury Department, and the Justice Department will have far greater effects on Pyongyang’s finances than an SSOT re-listing. That includes another sanctions bill that I expect Congress to pass this year, and which will contain the toughest secondary financial sanctions we’ve seen yet. It is also true that Pyongyang’s re-listing, which seems increasingly likely to occur next week, will have powerful symbolic consequences, including by reinforcing a message to every bank, government, and tin-pot tyrant on this planet that this time, at last, we mean it.

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* Whether the abductions themselves were acts of terrorism is debatable, notwithstanding State’s pre-2007 position. North Korea’s original intent in abducting Japanese citizens was to use them as language instructors, which doesn’t meet the element that the act must be done with the intent to influence the conduct of a government or a civilian population. I could make a stronger argument, however, that the continued detention of the abductees — or their remains — became terrorism when, at least as early as 2002, Pyongyang tried to trade them for the normalization of relations with Japan, and most likely, a generous aid package. In 2014, Pyongyang again tried to use them (or their remains) as hostages to extract aid and the relaxation of bilateral sanctions.

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