SEOUL: Last Friday (Mar 22), US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce he had ordered the withdrawal of sanctions on the North implemented the previous day.
While his message was short on specifics, he appeared to be referring to the US Treasury Department’s move to prohibit US entities from any dealings with two Chinese shipping companies suspected of not complying with the web of international strictures that restrict North Korea’s ability to carry out international trade.
There is lingering uncertainty over what Trump’s message actually referred to. A source told Reuters that Trump was referring not to the sanctions on two specific Chinese companies, as was reported initially, but to another wide-ranging set of sanctions that had been forthcoming.
According to this reading, Trump prevented these huge sanctions from being rolled out, as had been planned.
Trump presented the withdrawal of these sanctions as a move he executed himself, and didn’t offer any explanation for why he had done so. Later, his spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, implied that the president’s cordial bond with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was one reason. She said:
President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary.
Before Trump’s seemingly spontaneous cancellation of these sanctions, the ongoing love-in between the two leaders had come to something of a crossroads.
Last month in Hanoi, Trump walked away from their second summit when he felt like Kim was seeking sanctions relief while not offering to take credible steps toward denuclearisation.
He made clear at the time that both sides were interested in keeping up the dialogue, but that the deal on the table in Hanoi was less than appealing, and it made sense for him to walk away.
North Korea also appeared to feel inclined to walk away when, on the same day as Trump tweeted that he was scuttling the new sanctions, Pyongyang withdrew its staff from the liaison office it shared with South Korea.
The office is located in North Korea near the border with the South, and is the most tangible part of the two Koreas ongoing efforts to step up cooperation as a means toward ushering in an era of lasting peace.
Without explanation, or even an announcement (South Korean officials announced the news), Pyongyang pulled its officials from the office. On Monday (Mar 25), just as suddenly, some of the North Korean officials were back and operations at the office were going ahead.
Was the flip flop a response to the new sanctions, and the North Korean officials’ return a happy response to Trump’s intervention? As is the case with so much of what North Korea does, we have no way of knowing for sure.
There is one clue: South Korean officials made clear that the North Koreans had been ordered to leave the office by the upper levels of their government, which indicates that it wasn’t some local-level disagreement that led to their departure, but a directive from the bigwigs in Pyongyang.
This lends weight to the theory that, in withdrawing the officials, North Korea was agitating for some progress on bigger-picture issues, like sanctions.
WELCOMED ELSEWHERE, DESPITE DISSENT WITHIN THE US
It is also clear that not everyone in the US government was on board with Trump’s decision. The New York Times reported on the day of Trump’s tweet that some of Trump’s “most loyal aides” were “dealt a blow” by the president’s announcement, which the paper described as “a remarkable display of dissension within the Trump administration.”
To some observers, Trump’s conduct came across as capricious, as US officials were left to ponder whether the president’s personal affinity for the North Korean leader is sufficient grounds to undermine the US’s broader policy of implementing sanctions on the North, if indeed that was the reason for the U-turn.
At least from Trump’s perspective, the move seems to have worked out to his advantage.
By nixing a set of oncoming sanctions, Trump has made a gesture that Pyongyang will appreciate, seeing as, by all indications, freeing their economy from the strangling effect of sanctions is the North Koreans’ primary objective in negotiating.
The US’s South Korean allies will also welcome the gesture, as it will contribute to good vibes between Pyongyang and Washington, at what had been a testy time, after the failure of last month’s summit, and a couple of weeks later, when North Korea’s vice foreign minister said that Kim was considering breaking off talks with the US and going back to missile testing.
In recent months, American media have reported something of an impasse in the Trump administration, with seasoned officials trying to convince the president that North Korea has no real intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, while Trump maintains that he can negotiate a deal whereby Pyongyang will agree to do just that.
No one knows who is correct, but history is certainly on the pessimists’ side. North Korea has a long history of feigning interest in giving up nuclear armament, only to back away before taking any irreversible steps.
This time around, too, we have yet to see any clear signs that North Korea means business.
STRONG INCENTIVE ON BOTH SIDES TO KEEP DIALOGUE GOING
We also have no way of knowing whether or not Trump truly believes he can make a deal, or how much that even matters to him.
The US is gearing up for another long election cycle, with Trump set to seek a second term in a vote that will take place late next year. He therefore has a strong incentive to keep dialogue with North Korea going at least until then.
It is possible that his intervention on sanctions was a response to Pyongyang’s allusion to possibly refusing to take part in more talks. With an eye on his approval rating, Trump will want to move into next year’s election with North Korea as a foreign policy victory.
The surface-level cordiality is therefore likely to continue for the time being, but, given the gaps laid bare last month in Hanoi, it is only a matter of time before the two countries run into more challenging problems.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.