President Donald Trump just reversed a plan to impose sanctions on North Korea intended to strangle its economy — something that his own administration recently said was vitally important.
The Trump administration’s chosen strategy for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program has long been to place sanctions on the country, until it has no choice but to dismantle its arsenal. Should Pyongyang do that, Washington would lift the sanctions in return.
Last month, Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a summit to haggle over the nuclear program’s future, and many expected them to make a deal. But they came nowhere close to striking such an accord.
In response, the US planned to place new and larger sanctions on North Korea next week. But Trump didn’t make that known at the time with his Friday tweet, making it seem like he was talking about something else.
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2019
Indeed, many thought he was referring to sanctions, announced on Thursday, on two Chinese shipping companies for continuing to trade with North Korea. Members of the National Security Council, the White House team that helps the government coordinate foreign policy, even met with reporters to discuss the necessity of the financial penalties.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, also tweeted on Thursday about how important the sanctions move was.
That’s why experts who track Trump’s North Korea policy were immediately confused by Trump’s tweet. “What the actual f*ck is going on,” tweeted Grace Liu, a North Korea expert with the Middle Institute for International Studies. Others felt the same sentiment.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to explain, saying: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” according to a White House pool report.
So here’s what this seemingly means: Trump just defied his own administration in order to make Kim happy, even though the North Korea leader is a brutal dictator who has done next to nothing to dismantle his nuclear program.
There’s a potential reason why: According to one person familiar with the situation, Trump is worried that Kim may back out of diplomatic efforts after the no-deal summit in Vietnam. The worry is somewhat justified, as it seemed North Korea planned to launch a satellite earlier this month and on Friday withdrew officials from a liaison office with South Korea.
The real problem, though, isn’t Trump’s sudden sanctions reversal — but rather what it says about his North Korea policy.
Trump and Trump’s government are two separate things
Adam Mount, a North Korea expert at the Federation of American Scientists, tweeted his main reaction to Trump’s announcement.
Over and over officials and optimists explain to me that negotiations policy is rational, unified, coordinated, managed by experts, that DPRK could never divide the government or the alliance, that the president effectively exerts leverage. Somehow I'm still not convinced. https://t.co/l6D3bC8nUr— Adam Mount (@ajmount) March 22, 2019
That, in a nutshell, is the main takeaway.
Trump’s government went ahead with devising the sanctions and working to implement them. But Trump clearly wasn’t too aware of what was going on. When he heard about it, it seems, he ordered the process to stop.
It’s another example of how American foreign policy is increasingly driven by Trump’s whims, and that especially applies to US-North Korea nuclear negotiations.
There is a generous interpretation of what just happened, though. Trump, in an effort to look like the good guy, could have orchestrated an entire scheme whereby the US seemed like it was about to place sanctions on North Korea but he single-handedly stopped them — all to let Kim know he’s still willing to play nice.
But based on months and months of America’s negotiations with North Korea, which have been nothing short of chaotic, that seems unlikely. In fact, what Trump’s tweet on Friday really shows is that when it comes to his North Korea policy, chaos still reigns.