The president is finally reckoning with the role of sanctions in North Korean diplomacy.
This story was updated on March 26, 2019, at 11:24 am.
Last Thursday, for the first time since the second U.S.–North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the end of February, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions related to North Korea, designating two China-based shipping companies that had facilitated North Korean sanctions-evasion activities.
But a day later, President Donald Trump perplexed analysts by tweeting that he had ordered the U.S. Treasury Department to withdraw the “large scale Sanctions” that he said had been announced on March 22. No such sanctions had been announced that day; North Korea–watchers were left scratching their heads. Several news agencies ran stories suggesting that the president’s announcement pertained to the two Chinese entities that had been designated a day earlier, but that was hardly convincing as a “large scale” sanctions package.
It quickly became clear what had happened—or at least what the White House wanted to portray as having happened. The Washington Post first reported that the president’s tweet, according to administration officials, had preempted a new package of Treasury sanctions. A few days later, however, Bloomberg reported that explanation was meant to obscure Trump’s actual intention, which did pertain to withdrawing the sanctions against the Chinese companies. The episode showcased yet another example of a fractured executive branch at work, a mainstay feature of this administration since January 2017. But it also suggested that Trump might finally have grasped what it will take to keep the talks alive.
Since the Hanoi summit, diplomacy between the two countries has been on life support. The cause of collapse in Hanoi was simple: North Korea wanted a large package of sanctions relief, and the United States wouldn’t agree to it short of Pyongyang’s total nuclear abdication.
None of this was a surprise given what we knew going into the summit. With no room for agreement, the meeting ended before its scheduled conclusion, and both leaders went home empty handed. Kim Jong Un has remained silent since his return, but satellite-imagery analysts have detected signs that North Korea had undertaken measures even before the Hanoi summit to reconstitute missile- and space-related facilities it had dismantled following last May’s Singapore summit.
What’s been clear since Hanoi is that the road back to the negotiating table won’t be easy. Moreover, each side is just one move away from probably causing the other to walk away from this round of talks altogether.
For North Korea, a satellite launch would do the trick. If Pyongyang were to move ahead with a launch, we’d have uncanny echoes of 2012, when the Barack Obama administration’s “Leap Day Deal” collapsed over disagreements between the two sides about whether a satellite-launch vehicle was really a missile. (North Korea insisted it was not.)
In Washington, new sanctions would also immediately derail talks. There’s no doubt that the U.S. Treasury Department has a range of additional sanctions measures ready on the docket for North Korea, if and when they become necessary. Since Hanoi, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has publicly mooted the prospect of additional sanctions. In the past, both sides have hewed to a standard while talks between them went on: North Korea refrained from missile launches and other provocations, while the United States refrained from imposing new sanctions on Pyongyang.
Just as last week’s sanctions tweet demonstrated the ongoing conflict within the administration between the president and his deputies, so too did the approach taken in Hanoi. In the lead-up to that summit, Trump had tempered expectations for a deal, by emphasizing that all he cared about was the continuation of North Korea’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental-range missile testing, which had been announced last April.
Yet in Hanoi, the summit fell apart after maximalist demands were presented to the North Korean side. That wasn’t what Kim had anticipated in traveling to Hanoi. For Pyongyang, the expectation was that, like in Singapore, allowing the supreme leader to roll the dice on a one-on-one meeting with Trump, ever the unconventional U.S. president, would produce an outcome favorable to North Korea.
Just as he stood at the center of the controversy that nearly derailed the Singapore summit last year, when he called on Pyongyang to pursue a Libya-style disarmament bargain with the United States, so too is Bolton at the center of the collapse in Hanoi. On March 19, Bolton confirmed that Kim had received an expanded definition of what “denuclearization” meant to the United States—in Korean and English—that had been “written at staff level and cleared around as usual.” Bolton succeeded in holding up the guardrails on what the president might have conceded to North Korea.
North Korea understands this ongoing conflict within the Trump administration. It spent most of the months following the Singapore summit releasing editorials and reports in its state media praising Trump and criticizing what it called his “rivals” within the administration.
“President Trump, who has a ‘dream’ about world peace, an epoch-making cause, has too many rivals,” the Korean Central News Agency noted in an editorial published on August 19, 2018. That same editorial criticized a nameless body of officials “opposed to dialogue” who were trumping up North Korea’s suspected “secret nuclear facilities,” such as the Kangson enrichment site.
Even earlier this month, Choe Son Hui, a senior North Korean diplomat with a long history of negotiating with the United States—and with Bolton specifically—noted that “Trump was of the flexible position that a deal could be possible if it contained a reference to the fact that sanctions removal would be reversible in the event that North Korea resumed nuclear activities.”
Choe’s point echoed months of North Korean propaganda that suggested the president had the vision necessary to forge a new era of U.S.–North Korea relations in line with the spirit of the Singapore declaration. At a press conference in Pyongyang, she emphasized that, in Hanoi, it was Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who had “created an obstacle.”
Even as no deal was reached in Hanoi, it is possible that the president came to realize that what North Korea wants above all in the short term is sanctions relief. In Hanoi, at the press conference that followed the summit’s collapse, Trump outlined why he couldn’t agree to the relief package that North Korea sought. Pyongyang wanted clauses pertaining to its “civilian economy” across the five most recent UN Security Council resolutions passed between 2016 and 2017 to be removed. That would represent the bulk of the sanctions pressure on North Korea; what Kim offered up in return was not a sufficiently large portion of his expansive nuclear complex.
Pyongyang might be trying to reinforce Trump’s instincts. On Monday, North Korean personnel who had mysteriously stopped showing up at the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong—one of the banner achievements of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s outreach to the North last year—came back.
In the inter-Korean context, North Korean messaging has heavily emphasized pan-Korean self-determination in an attempt to convey to South Korea that the process that kicked off last February at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics gives both sides an unprecedented opportunity to change the nature of their relationship.
In January, following Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address, which also hit on similar messages, North Korea officials appealed to “all Koreans” to “smash all kinds of sanctions and pressure” to pursue joint economic well-being. Kim’s recent moves—including the restoration of the satellite and missile facilities that were dismantled—are as focused on motivating Moon to persuade the United States to pursue sanctions relief as they are at creating concern in Trump’s mind that the launch moratorium he so cherishes may be coming to an end.
The result of Trump’s apparent reckoning with the role of sanctions in diplomacy with North Korea is last week’s tweet. Even as it exposed the divisions within this executive branch, it will have the effect of keeping diplomacy with North Korea alive—if barely. Calling off sanctions that were never announced, after all, does not amount to the sort of relief that North Korea seeks. It does, however, suggest to Pyongyang that Trump once again might be willing to take the unconventional steps that his predecessors were unwilling to.
The conundrum, however, is whether this alone will be sufficient to start the buildup of momentum toward a third U.S.–North Korea summit. Kim discovered in Hanoi that taking a chance on a one-on-one encounter with the U.S. president can backfire. If there is a next time, Pyongyang will look for concrete signs that the United States is ready to treat partial relief as a concession.
If that doesn’t come, Kim has already told us what he’ll do. During his New Year’s Day address this year, he underscored that if the United States wasn’t willing to offer up “corresponding measures”—that is, sanctions relief—and tested his patience, he would pursue a “new way.” If Bolton gets what he wants and Washington does move forward with additional sanctions, we’ll learn what that consists of.