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The past 72 hours in rising tensions between the US and North Korea, explained

Trump takes an unprecedented strike at his own secretary of state.

Analysts say that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s credibility as a diplomat has been destroyed by the president’s recent comments.
Getty Images

President Trump’s ongoing attempts to rein in North Korea without resorting to military force took a major blow this past weekend — and Trump himself is largely to blame for it.

The weekend started off looking upbeat for the administration. North Korea on Friday admitted that new sanctions regimes were exacting a “colossal” toll on its economy.

And on Saturday, during his second trip to China since taking office, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said publicly for the first time that the Trump administration has multiple channels of direct communication with North Korea and is “probing” for a direct conversation with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” Tillerson told reporters in Beijing.

But on Sunday, Trump completely undermined Tillerson’s allusions to behind-the-scenes diplomacy in a stunning series of tweets:

And Sunday night, the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick reported that Egypt — a close if problematic US ally — has been attempting to import weapons from North Korea. It’s a revelation that drives home just how hard it is for the US to get the global community to truly unite in an attempt to isolate Pyongyang.

Overall, the news on North Korea lately isn’t encouraging for those hoping for a break in rising tensions. What follows is a quick recap of the past 72 hours in the US-North Korea standoff — and why it matters.

North Korea is hurting from new sanctions

On Friday, North Korea issued a statement about the impact of US and United Nations sanctions on the country’s economy, saying, “The colossal amount of damage caused by these sanctions to the development of our state and the people’s livelihood is beyond anyone’s calculation.”

The statement also decried the sanctions as “a brutal criminal act that indiscriminately infringes upon the right to existence of the peaceful civilians.”

The US and the global community have recently imposed some of the harshest sanctions North Korea has ever faced. In September, Trump signed a sweeping executive order designed to cut North Korea out of the global financial system and slapped new sanctions on eight North Korean banks and more than two dozen people linked to North Korean financial networks.

And on Thursday, China ordered all North Korea business and North Korean ventures with Chinese partners to close by January, cutting off a crucial source of foreign currency for the hermetic country.

The UN Security Council passed two major rounds of sanctions in August and September against North Korea, which, combined with past sanctions, effectively embargo 90 percent of North Korea’s publicly reported exports. The September UN sanctions also restrict North Korea’s ability to use foreign laborers to generate revenue for its government and cut off more than 55 percent of refined petroleum products such as gasoline and fuel going into North Korea.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho mentioned in his UN General Assembly speech on September 23 that Pyongyang had recently formed a “Sanctions Damage Investigation Committee” for the express purpose of measuring the effects of the new sanctions. In other words, they’re taking them very seriously.

But the spokesperson for that committee has said that North Korea will never give up its nuclear program: "It is a foolish dream to hope that the sanctions could work on the DPRK." And indeed, many experts and the intelligence community believe sanctions alone can’t make North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions. But analysts say that nonetheless, the economic pain of sanctions could make them more likely to approach the negotiating table with the US.

Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California San Diego, says the North Korean regime may be trying to get out ahead of an impending financial crisis with these public statements blaming North Korea’s enemies for their financial woes.

“Of course, North Korea can’t simply say that it is going to fold in the face of sanctions — the national narrative is standing up to imperialists. But if hard times are coming, the regime may also be preparing for the public for those difficulties, trying to rally the population around the flag,” Haggard told me.

Trump’s Twitter diplomacy strikes again

On Saturday, Tillerson told reporters in China that the US was looking to initiate dialogue with North Korea and alluded to a “couple, three channels” that the US has with North Korea.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson said. “We ask: Would you like to talk? We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation.”

It was the Trump administration’s first acknowledgement of direct communication with Pyongyang. The US officially has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, but it does have a few ways to pass along messages to the country’s government.

As Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me, the US can communicate with the North Korean government using what’s known as “the New York channel” — North Korea’s mission to the UN, which is based in New York. The US can also pass messages through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang. It’s unclear if there are any additional or new channels of communication with the North Korean government.

Tillerson’s comments suggested that despite the constant threats of war between Washington and Pyongyang, there were real discussions going on behind the scenes that could potentially lead to some kind of negotiated resolution — or at least decrease the likelihood of a catastrophic misunderstanding that could lead to war.

The fact that Tillerson decided to talk about it with reporters signaled that despite all the saber rattling in the US-North Korea standoff, the Trump administration is looking for a peaceful path to managing the crisis.

That is, until Trump decided to tweet on Sunday morning that Tillerson was wasting his time. In under 300 characters, Trump basically destroyed Tillerson’s credibility with China and North Korea and signaled that the US is hell-bent on war.

“Neither the North Koreans or anyone else will think Tillerson's words carry any weight after Trump pulled the rug out from under him,” Lewis told me. “After this, no way he can do his job.”

Analysts say these kinds of comments torpedo existing and future diplomatic opportunities — and increase the likelihood of a military clash.

“With each tweet, especially those mocking Kim Jong Un, Trump is pushing us closer to conflict with North Korea,” Jenny Town, assistant director of Johns Hopkins University's US-Korea Institute, told me.

Trump’s inclination to use force was underscored by a Washington Post report over the weekend that revealed the president signed a secret order this spring authorizing the use of cyberattacks against North Korea’s military spy agency.

Things got even more confusing Sunday afternoon. Hours after Trump's tweets, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert‏ tweeted, "Diplomatic channels are open for #KimJongUn for now. They won't be open forever."

Nauert seemed to be attempting to send a message that staked out a middle ground between Tillerson and Trump, suggesting that dialogue was still possible but by no means guaranteed in the future or hinged on some undefined condition.

So who represents the actual thrust of the US diplomatic effort — Tillerson, Trump, or Nauert? It’s anybody’s guess.

A close US ally has been undermining sanctions on North Korea

Another, quieter bit of news about North Korea also emerged this weekend.

Back in August, the US government secretly tipped off the Egyptian government about a ship flying under a Cambodian flag that was headed toward the Suez Canal. Egyptian authorities seized the ship and discovered a cache of more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades, making it the largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against North Korea.

But in a fascinating twist, the Washington Post reports that the shipment had in fact been ordered by Egypt itself. According to the report, which cites unnamed US officials and a confidential UN investigation, Egyptian businessmen ordered the arms on behalf of the Egyptian government.

The Trump administration’s knowledge of this illicit transaction is part of what inspired it to cancel a $96 million aid package to Egypt and delay a different $195 million package in August.

The report highlights a vexing reality for the US campaign to isolate North Korea’s economy: It’s easy to get countries to say they’re cutting off ties with the regime, but it’s harder to get them to actually do it.

The US has the same issue with China, which often makes bold statements about cracking down on trade with North Korea but rarely follows through. Despite China’s grand promises over the past several months to slow its trade with Pyongyang, China’s imports from North Korea in August fell just 1 percent from a year ago.

Getting the global community to effectively unite and uphold economic sanctions against a specific country would be tough for any US administration. But with the chaos and mixed messaging coming out of the White House, that effort may be more difficult.

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