Why Trump Declared North Korea a State Sponsor of Terrorism

On Nov. 20, President Donald Trump officially returned North Korea to a list of states that sponsor terrorism. That same day, Song Tao, China’s envoy to North Korea, returned to Beijing from a four-day visit. Chinese state media didn’t say if Song managed to meet with Kim Jong Un.

The backdrop:

Nov. 8-10: Trump visits Beijing. Both Trump and Xi express their commitment to denuclearizing North Korea.

Nov. 11-14: The United States and South Korea held joint military exercises off South Korea’s east coast. Around the same period, China held a joint forces exercise in the East China Sea. (See our Nov. 14 article.)

Nov. 15: China announced that Song Tao, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) international affairs department head, will visit North Korea as Xi Jinping’s special envoy on Nov. 17. Song would brief Pyongyang about the outcome of the 19th Party Congress. (See our Nov. 15 article.)

Nov. 16-19: China and the U.S. hold a joint humanitarian disaster control exercise in Oregon. This exercise was prominently covered by the People’s Liberation Army’s media and various provincial official media.

Nov. 17: Song Tao goes to North Korea.

Nov. 20: In response to a query during a regular Chinese foreign ministry press briefing about whether Song Tao managed to meet with Kim Jong Un, a foreign ministry spokesperson said, “that’s still in progress.” Song returns to Beijing, and the official announcement of his trip doesn’t mention that he met the North Korean leader.

Hours after the announcement of Song’s return, Trump declares North Korea a supporter of international terrorism. He added that the U.S. Treasury would impose more sanctions on Pyongyang on Nov. 21.

Our take:

  1. We wrote earlier that Trump and Xi are on the same page concerning the North Korean nuclear issue. The timing of the China-U.S. military exercises, Song Tao’s trip to Pyongyang, and Trump’s declaration appear to confirm our analysis.
  2. The Chinese foreign ministry’s press briefing and state media reports about Song’s North Korea visit suggest that he didn’t get an audience with Kim Jong Un. And if Kim didn’t meet with Song, a Xi protégé, this implies that he rejects Xi’s authority and is still in league with the Jiang Zemin faction.
  3. Kim holding out on Xi suggests that the Jiang faction still has some measure of power left. We believe that North Korea may continue its nuclear provocations.
  4. We believe that Trump and Xi will adopt a tougher stance against North Korea. Military action cannot be ruled out.