It’s been four days since President Donald Trump tweeted that he would cancel planned sanctions on North Korea — and we still have no clue what he meant.
On March 22, Trump tweeted that he would terminate “additional large scale Sanctions” on Pyongyang that he claimed had been announced that day.
That led to widespread confusion because no sanctions had been issued that day.
Some thought maybe Trump was referring to sanctions announced a day earlier on two Chinese shipping companies for continuing to trade with North Korea, which members of his administration had already discussed with reporters.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders seemed to confirm that interpretation when she told reporters shortly after Trump’s tweet was posted that “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
That in and of itself would’ve been controversial, as Trump would’ve openly gone against what his administration thought was best to please North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But then the situation got murky — really murky.
Just a few hours later, multiple news outlets including the Washington Post and Fox News reported that the administration had actually been planning to apply additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea, just as the president had initially implied.
That made it seem like Trump chose to block a larger round of sanctions on North Korea devised by his administration — and opted to do so publicly.
And now it’s possible that that explanation isn’t correct, either.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Trump actually was referring to the sanctions on the Chinese shipping companies all along. According to the report, though, Trump’s staff persuaded him to back off, and then “devised a misleading explanation” for his tweet.
Even more damning, there were apparently no planned large-scale sanctions on North Korea in the works.
Which means no one — still — has any clarity about what Trump actually meant by his cryptic North Korea tweet last week. That, to put it mildly, is not good, especially since US-North Korea nuclear diplomacy is arguably Trump’s most important foreign policy initiative.
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
Trump’s North Korea policy is in chaos
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.
But they came nowhere close to striking such an accord, which made Trump’s March 22 tweet such a surprise to North Korea watchers and even members of his own administration.
It’s the latest example of how American foreign policy is increasingly driven by Trump’s whims, and that has proven catastrophic during the US-North Korea nuclear negotiations.
This episode is case in point. First, no one still really knows what Trump meant with his North Korea sanctions tweet. Second, it’s completely possible that the administration lied to the media — and the American public — about what he meant.
And third, this will only confuse North Korean officials who follow statements by the US government closely to divine what its policy really is. What makes it all worse is that Pyongyang is just as confused as the rest of us.