‘Maximum pressure’ on North is getting wobbly

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‘Maximum pressure’ on North is getting wobbly

Fault lines in U.S. government policy toward North Korea were exposed over the weekend when U.S. President Donald Trump overruled the Treasury Department by announcing a withdrawal of additional sanctions on Friday.

“It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea,” Trump wrote on Twitter Friday. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

Confusion initially reigned in Washington as to what the sanctions Trump was referring to since no new North Korea-related sanctions had been announced on Friday. It was first believed the president was referring to sanctions placed by the Treasury Department Thursday on two Chinese shipping companies continuing trade with the North.

The Washington Post and Fox News later reported that Trump was actually talking about a new round of unannounced, large-scale sanctions expected to be introduced by the Treasury Department this week. It is unclear whether details of these prepared sanctions will ever be unveiled as a result of their pre-emptive cancellation by the president.

The tweet was apparently sent without notice to senior officials in the administration and the Treasury, catching many officials off guard, according to the New York Times. Only a day earlier, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton had tweeted that the Treasury’s move to crack down on the North’s illicit shipping practices were “important actions.”

According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the decision to pull back on new sanctions was because “President Trump likes Chairman Kim [Jong-un], and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.” No further details were given.

The move spurred criticism in Washington from opposition lawmakers and analysts, who warned Trump’s erratic approach to diplomacy with the North could erode the so-called maximum pressure campaign on North Korea - something administration officials have repeatedly said they would maintain as long as Pyongyang kept its nukes.

“Once again, President Trump is making critical national security decisions on the fly, with tweets that directly conflict with the advice of his cabinet and experts,” read a statement from Friday by Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Other analysts, however, say Trump’s announcement may be aimed at placating North Korea after Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui warned last week that Kim could imminently break off talks with the United States and lift his moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.

Hours after the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on the Chinese shipping companies on Thursday, Pyongyang withdrew its officials from an inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong, dealing a heavy blow to Seoul’s attempt to broker a compromise between North Korea and the United States.

In addition to withdrawing from the liaison office, North Korea appears to be putting all inter-Korean initiatives on hold by remaining silent on the implementation of a host of agreements made with the South last year.

According to South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Sunday, the North has yet to respond to a proposal to hold a new round of military talks on the border to carry out a series of measures agreed to by military officials on both sides last September. With little time to prepare, the possibility of these talks proceeding on schedule for March looks increasingly dim, as with the joint excavation of combatant remains in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries slated for April 1.

The most notable of these joint initiatives - one Seoul has ardently pursued - are the twin economic projects at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourism complex, both of which remain firmly suspended due to heavy pushback from the United States.

In an article in Slate Friday, journalist and foreign policy analyst Fred Kaplan said Kim’s goal with these moves could be to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington by pushing South Korean President Moon Jae-in - who has a large stake in inter-Korean reconciliation - away from a noncompliant ally in the United States.

“Meanwhile, in his overrule-by-tweet of his cabinet’s upping of sanctions, Trump has revealed not only that he doesn’t know how to govern [...] but also that he doesn’t get what game Kim is playing,” Kaplan wrote.

Backing up this claim of policy disarray in Washington are the words of a U.S. Treasury Department official who visited Seoul last Thursday for working level talks.

The official reportedly told a South Korean think tank researcher that his department was aware of sanction violations allegedly committed by South Korean companies but could not act on them due to the stance of the White House.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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