ELISE HU, HOST:
President Trump said today he's putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The announcement came during a cabinet meeting.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.
HU: North Korea joins just three other countries on that list - Iran, Sudan and Syria. To talk about what this means, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Elise.
HU: So why is North Korea being added to the list now?
MYRE: Well, big picture is this is part of the whole nuclear feud that's been going on. On the more granular level, Congress passed a sanctions bill 90 days ago and said that - a little over 90 days ago and said the Trump administration had to make a decision, yes or no. Does North Korea go on this list of state sponsors of terrorism? So the Trump administration is giving their decision today.
Now, nuclear programs are one thing. Terrorism tends to be something else, and it's not sort of traditional terrorism. The one event that the president mentioned was the killing of Kim Jong Un's half-brother at a Malaysian airport earlier this year. Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, also spoke about it. He called it peaceful pressure. Trump is calling this a maximum-pressure campaign. Tillerson sort of noted this with a smirk, but he said they're on the same page. And to the larger point, let's listen to what he had to say here.
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REX TILLERSON: Again, this just continues to tighten the pressure on the Kim regime all with an intention to have him understand this is only going to get worse until you're ready to come and talk.
HU: Greg, what does this designation mean in practical terms?
MYRE: Well, it means that their administration is still looking at non-military options. Tillerson was asked very directly, you know, are you running out of diplomatic options? And he said, no, we're making a very strong statement. He acknowledged this may not really ramp up the sanctions, that it does trigger some automatic sanctions and punitive measures. But these are sort of already covered. The Treasury is going to announce some more tomorrow. So it's not really the sanctions. It's more of the symbolism of doing it.
HU: President Trump says this, quote, "should have happened years ago." But actually North Korea was on the list years ago. This actually happened in the '80s, and then North Korea came off the list. What happened?
MYRE: Right. So in 1987, a South Korean airplane blew up on a flight to Thailand. More than a hundred people were killed. North Korea was blamed. The following year, they were added to the list of state sponsors. They stayed there for 20 years. And then President Bush at the end of his time in office in 2008 took them off because there were some nuclear negotiations going on. They thought South - the North Koreans were going to curb their nuclear program. And with facing a lot of criticism, he went ahead and did this.
HU: So how is North Korea likely to respond to this?
MYRE: Always unpredictable - we don't know. This has happened during the middle of the night there. Kim Jong Un has been fairly quiet the past couple months or so. But certainly a missile test or a nuclear test could certainly be possible. We'll certainly be keeping an eye on that. And it's certainly a reminder that this is still a front-burner issue. Trump just had his big trip to Asia. This came up again and again. And one final note - in less than three months, the world's athletes will be gathering in South Korea for the Winter Olympics, and they're going to be going into a region that's very, very tense.
HU: NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thank you.
MYRE: Thank you, Elise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.