WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States said Thursday that Sudan will cut all military and trade ties to North Korea, a move that would be a significant victory in the Trump administration's efforts to isolate the Stalinist nation amid increasing tensions over the North's testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Sudan is taking the step due to the "critical threat" posed by the North's nuclear program. She said the United States welcomed the decision, which was announced after a visit to Khartoum by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. That visit came as the U.S. and Sudan, encouraged by Israel and Saudi Arabia, moved to improve ties after decades of hostility.
"Isolating the North Korean regime is a top priority for the United States, and is a key element to maintaining peace and stability worldwide," Nauert said in a statement. "The United States is grateful for Sudan's commitment to take these important steps in light of the critical threat posed by" North Korea.
The Trump administration has been pushing foreign countries to reduce economic, diplomatic and other ties to Pyongyang in an effort to further isolate the country and bring it back to the negotiating table. In recent weeks, the administration has been targeting African and South Asian nations and several have agreed. Sudan has been a particular focus of the effort as part of an attempt to improve ties between Washington and Khartoum that has led to a lifting of some U.S. sanctions against Sudan.
As North Korea has faced increasing isolation from western countries, it has increasingly sought relationships with in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in order to raise badly needed finances. In Africa, it has cultivated military and economic ties with a number of countries, including Sudan, Uganda and Angola, that range from military training programs to construction and industrial projects and the supply of guest workers.
Last month, Uganda announced it had expelled North Korean military experts and representatives of North Korean companies, including its top arms dealer, as part of efforts to comply with new U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. North Korea had for years trained Ugandan security forces in physical fitness, maritime warfare and weapons handling.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union Commission, responded to Sudan's announcement by saying the African Union condemned the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the continent and elsewhere.
"The development and the manufacturing of these weapons pose a real threat to peace and security in the world," the AU chief said in an Associated Press interview.
Thursday's announcement came ahead of a decision expected soon for the U.S. to re-list North Korea as a "state sponsor of terrorism," a designation that President George W. Bush's administration removed in 2008 as it sought a diplomatic agreement to halt Pyongyang's atomic weapons program.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Thursday she expected a decision on North Korea's status to be made early next week. The administration had missed an early November congressional deadline to make a decision on the designation but said it would make a determination after the conclusion of President Donald Trump's just-concluded visit to Asia.
Sudan is one of only three countries — the others are Iran and Syria — that are currently designated state sponsor of terrorisms by the State Department, a label that carries economic and financial sanctions. The announcement of Sudan cutting ties with North Korea will likely help its case to be removed from the list.
However, a senior State Department official said the potential changes to Sudan's and North Korea's designations are not directly related and that reviews of both countries are proceeding independently. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said a determination on Sudan would likely depend on how well it implements its pledge to cut ties with North Korea.
Nauert's statement said the U.S. "will continue engagement on this issue to ensure that this commitment is fully implemented."