March 27, 2019 in News by RBN Staff




Last week saw some confusion within the Trump administration about sanctions against North Korea. A Trump tweet seemed to contradict his own administration’s policies. The White House then thought up an implausible explanation for what Trump had done. The face saving measure worked, but new leaks now again undermine him.

U.S. media reported of the episode but missed a major point. The timeline below shows that the internal White House conflict was prompted by reactions from North Korea’s side.

After bad weather and a strong sanctions regime against it, North Korea is running low on food. Last month its ambassador to the UN requested food assistance:

Kim, the ambassador to the U.N., said record-high temperatures, drought and flooding last year shaved more than 500,000 tons off of the 2018 harvest from the nearly 5 million tons produced in 2017.

Humanitarian assistance from the U.N. agencies is “terribly politicized,” he said, and sanctions against North Korea are “barbaric and inhuman.”

On Thursday the 21st the Treasury Department, ignoring the dire situation, issued new sanctions (pdf) against two Chinese shipping companies that are trading with North Korea. It also named more North Korean vessels that it suspects to be involved in sanction busting efforts.

National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted:

John Bolton @AmbJohnBolton – 18:31 utc – 21 Mar 2019
John Bolton Retweeted Treasury DepartmentImportant actions today from @USTreasury; the maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices. Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.

The next day North Korea reacted to the move by pulling its officers from the liaison office with South Korea:

Matt Lee @APDiploWriter – 9:25 utc – 22 Mar 2019SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — #SouthKorea says #NorthKorea has withdrawn its staff from an inter-Korean liaison office in North Korea.

The move was unexpected:

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Friday that North Korea informed South Korea of its decision during a contact at the liaison office at the North Korean border town of Kaesong.The ministry calls the North’s decision “regrettable.” It says the North didn’t give a specific reason for its move.

The liaison office opened last September as part of a flurry of reconciliation steps.

The liaison office is one the few diplomatic contact points where talk between the two sides are still happening. The U.S. uses it to indirectly communicate with North Korea. Following the North Korean pull back there was likely a phone call from President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Ten hours after North Korea pulled back its liaison officers Trump contradicted his administrations position:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump – 17:22 utc – 22 Mar 2019It 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!

The New York Times reported of confusion:

President Trump undercut his own Treasury Department on Friday with a sudden announcement that he had rolled back newly imposed North Korea sanctions, appearing to overrule national security experts as a favor to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.The move, announced on Twitter, was a remarkable display of dissension within the Trump administration. It created confusion at the highest levels of the federal government, just as the president’s aides were seeking to pressure North Korea into returning to negotiations over dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

The North Korea hawks were aghast. They wanted to keep the sanctions but could not contradict Trump. The White House needed to come up with an explanation:

It was initially believed that Mr. Trump had confused the day that the North Korea sanctions were announced, and officials said they were caught off guard by the president’s tweet. Asked for clarification, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, declined to give specifics.“President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” she said.

Then, hours later, an official familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking said the president was actually referring to additional North Korea sanctions that are under consideration but not yet formally issued.

That statement sought to soften the blow that Mr. Trump’s tweet had dealt to his most loyal aides. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, personally signed off on the sanctions that were issued on Thursday and hailed the decision in a statement accompanying them.

The Washington Post noted:

The move to forestall future sanctions represents an attempt by the president to salvage his nuclear negotiations with North Korea in the face of efforts by national security adviser John Bolton and others to increase punitive economic measures against the regime of Kim Jong Un.

The explanation that Trump referred to future sanctions seemed implausible. Why would Trump need to publicly prevent future sanctions? It made no sense.

To me it seemed that Trump had tried to play the good guy by revoking the sanctions that were enacted the day before but was overruled by his staff. The issue was then presented in a way that made Trump still look good in the eyes of North Korea. It was a face saving measure. After the failed Hanoi summit between Chairman Kim Jong-un and Trump both sides emphasized their good personal relations. Trump wanted to keep the relation alive but the sanctions were kept up.

Luckily North Korea swallowed the additional sanctions and accepted the face saving explanation. On Monday it reacted to the happy spin:

Some North Korean officials returned to a liaison office with South Korea just days after Pyongyang withdrew from the facility that allowed the rivals to communicate around the clock.

The cut-off of the last face-to-face communication line was avoided.

But to some people in the White House that situation is not to their liking. They want to further undermine Trump’s efforts to continue negotiations with North Korea.  They now leak that the “future sanction” explanation, which North Korea accepted, was indeed nonsense.

Bloomberg reports today:

President Donald Trump last week intended to reverse sanctions imposed on two Chinese shipping companies accused of violating North Korea trade prohibitions — until officials in his administration persuaded him to back off and then devised a misleading explanation of his vague tweet announcing the move.

The president in fact intended to remove penalties Treasury had announced the day before against two Chinese shippers that had helped Pyongyang evade U.S. sanctions, according to four people familiar with the matter. It was unclear whether Trump knew about or signed off on the measures before they were issued, or what triggered his tweet the next day.

There were no additional North Korea sanctions in the works at the time, according to two people familiar with the matter.

It is quite obvious what “triggered” Trump’s tweet. It was the North Korean pullback from the liaison office. But Bloomberg, like other U.S. outlets, ignores that quite obvious explanation. This constant ignorance of the action of the other side is one of the systemic problems U.S. media have.

New sanctions were announced to which North Korea reacted negatively. Trump, who wants to keep the door open for future negotiations,  took note and pulled back on the sanctions. But John Bolton intervened. The sanctions were kept. A well sounding but implausible explanation was found. North Korea accepted that and came back to the table.

The new leak now again aggravates the situation. It shows that Trump has little real say about his administration’s policy. It shows that he was powerless when he tried to undo the sanctions that had worsened the situation in the first place. The leak undermines whatever trust Kim Jong-un still has in Trump’s words.

How will North Korea react to this? Will it again pull back from the liaison office, a step the John Boltons of this world would see as a win?

Will it ignore the new leak?