Trump Offers Clumsy Olive Branch to North Korea

Experts say the U.S. president seems desperate to rescue his promise of a nuclear deal.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un hold a bilateral meeting during the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un hold a bilateral meeting during the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump surprised his own administration on Friday by offering a blunt olive branch to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Twitter, reversing a proposed sanctions package only a day after his national security advisor had touted other sanctions as “important actions.”

The reason for the move, explained White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is that “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

With negotiations apparently stalled, some experts said the surprise action will only undercut the U.S. stance, which calls for applying maximum pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile program. It also appeared to reflect Trump’s aim to rescue a policy that less than a year ago, following his first summit with Kim in Singapore, he had declared a success.

“There’s a sense both in Seoul and Washington that these negotiations could be circling the drain, and there’s a need to inject a new shock into the system,” said Kristine Lee, a research associate for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “Trump is scrambling to salvage the remnants of what he sees as his diplomatic legacy.”

The move appeared to catch senior U.S. officials off guard, offering another example of Trump abruptly lurching in new directions on Twitter and leaving U.S. agencies scrambling to reverse engineer and sparking confusion over which sanctions package Trump was referring to.

Initially, officials and experts believed Trump was referring to Treasury’s sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies, announced on Thursday. But hours after the tweet, reports emerged that he was citing a new set of broader sanctions that the Treasury Department had not yet announced.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has pushed to increase U.S. pressure on North Korea, appeared to also be caught up in the confusion, believing it to refer to the first set of sanctions. “Maximum Pressure means sanctioning North Korea’s enablers. Treasury was right – sanctions should be imposed, as is required by US law. Strategic Patience failed. Don’t repeat it,” he tweeted within hours of Trump’s vague edict.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Thursday it was sanctioning two Chinese shipping companies, Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd. and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd., for helping North Korea sidestep U.S. and international sanctions.

A recent United Nations report concluded North Korea has subverted sanctions with a raft of illicit ship-to-ship transfers, coal exports, and arms sales through the Middle East and Africa.

China, meanwhile, is propping up North Korea’s anemic economy despite the dense web of U.S. and international sanctions. “Beijing in the past year has really thrown North Korea a vital lifeline to help keep its economy afloat,” Lee said.

On Thursday, two of Trump’s top deputies praised Thursday’s sanctions policy measure. National Security Advisor John Bolton highlighted the new sanctions on Twitter, saying the maritime industry “must do more” to roll back illicit shipping from North Korea.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday: “We are making it explicitly clear that shipping companies employing deceptive tactics to mask illicit trade with North Korea expose themselves to great risk.”

Now those messages hang awkwardly in the ether following Trump’s tweet Friday afternoon: “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. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

Trump made the decision a little over a week after North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, speaking with reporters in Pyongyang, harshly criticized Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying they’ve created an “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust.” Choe was careful not to criticize Trump, a consistent strategy throughout Pyongyang’s talks with Washington.

The president may also be sensitive to accusations from Pyongyang that he misrepresented Kim’s demands for sanctions relief during their meeting last month in Hanoi. In the immediate aftermath of the Hanoi summit, North Korea’s foreign minister disputed Trump’s account of how the talks broke down. Trump said the talks faltered after Kim demanded lifting all economic sanctions on his country in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility. In a rare press conference afterward, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho disputed this account, saying Kim only asked for partial sanctions relief and offered to dismantle all of the country’s nuclear material production.

The differences haven’t killed hopes for new talks, as both Washington and Pyongyang appear careful to not permanently burn bridges with the other.

The way in which Trump made his announcement and its ensuing confusion could hurt the standing of his top advisors and aides in the eyes of North Korea and U.S. allies in the region, said Bruce Klingner, an expert on North Korea at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA Korea deputy division chief. He said such rapid shifts in policy cast doubt on whether what they say could just be reversed by the president at a moment’s notice. “It undercuts U.S. negotiators, where there’s increasing questions of whether they truly speak on behalf of the president,” he said.

Following the breakdown of talks at the Hanoi summit, Trump’s second face-to-face meeting with Kim, the U.S. side has paused negotiations to take stock of how to move forward. But North Korea appears to be inching backward.

Earlier this month, it began rebuilding part of a satellite launch facility it used to test long-range missiles, according to commercial satellite imagery analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, and 38 North, a website that monitors North Korean.

Pyongyang on Friday also withdrew from a liaison office it established with South Korea in Kaesong, a town on the North Korean border. The measure pours cold water on South Korea’s efforts to repair ties with its bellicose neighbor.

North Korea’s moves and Trump’s policy reversals have left Seoul frustrated, according to one South Korean diplomatic source. “We are caught in the middle, and it feels like we are being slapped from both sides,” the source said.

Update, March 22, 2019: This article was updated to include new information regarding which sanctions Trump was reportedly referring to in his tweet. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer