Trump undercuts 'maximum pressure' strategy on North Korea

President Donald Trump has overturned the Treasury Department’s plans to impose sanctions against an unspecified “large-scale” number of North Korean entities violating U.S. laws. It was first thought Trump was referring to two Chinese shipping companies sanctioned the previous day. It is unknown if he also will direct Treasury to annul those sanctions.

Trump’s blocking action will hinder U.S. law enforcement actions and undermine international efforts to pressure North Korea to denuclearize. The decision to reverse plans (reportedly made but not yet publicized) to enhance sanctions enforcement less than 24 hours after the announcement against two other entities, reflects disarray in U.S. policy. Cancelling the second, larger tranche of sanctions would not have been known had Trump not pre-announced their rescission.

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U.S. imposing sanctions — or not. On March 21, the Treasury Department publicized sanctions against two Chinese shipping firms helping Pyongyang circumvent United Nations-imposed restrictions on North Korean trade. Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinDems plot next move in Trump tax-return battle On The Money: House Dem says marijuana banking bill will get vote in spring | Buttigieg joins striking Stop & Shop workers | US home construction slips in March | Uber gets B investment for self-driving cars Former Sears holding company sues ex-CEO, Mnuchin and others over 'asset stripping' MORE stated: “The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and believe that the full implementation of North Korea-related U.N. Security Council resolutions is crucial to a successful outcome.”

In highlighting the necessity of U.S. enforcement to uphold U.N. resolutions, Mnuchin, who personally had signed off on the sanctions, vowed that “Treasury will continue to enforce our sanctions.” A senior U.S. administration official commented, “This is not really about intensification of pressure. This is about maintaining pressure as defined by the international community.”

National security adviser John Bolton hailed the “important actions” against North Korea, underscoring that “everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.”

Less than 24 hours later, President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE declared, “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!”

Maximum pressure never has been maximum. The Trump administration, like its predecessors, has talked tough about imposing pressure on North Korea but instead engaged in timid incrementalism in upholding U.S. laws.

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On the eve of last year’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un, President Trump said he put “hundreds” of North Korean sanctions in abeyance because “we’re talking so nicely” with Pyongyang. He added, “I don’t even want to use the term ‘maximum pressure.’” Trump subsequently disclosed that he would not sanction 300 North Korean entities, a number equal to the cumulative total that the United States sanctioned during nine-and-a-half years of the Obama and Trump administrations. Trump explained, “I can’t really put on new sanctions when I’m meeting with [Kim]; I thought it would be disrespectful.”

In addition, the Treasury Department deferred implementing sanctions against three dozen Russian and Chinese entities providing prohibited support to North Korea. Nor has the White House taken action against a dozen Chinese banks that Congress recommended be sanctioned for their dealings with North Korea.

After Singapore, the administration sanctioned a few tranches of a small number of North Korean or related entities. U.S. officials indicated they were meant as a signal of larger actions that could be taken in the future to pressure Pyongyang. But in the six-month run-up to the Hanoi summit, no significant action was taken.

In December 2018, the White House cancelled a planned speech by Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence hasn't released any tax returns since becoming VP: report Buttigieg responds to accusation of pushing a 'hate hoax' about Pence Pete Buttigieg: 'God doesn't have a political party' MORE that would have criticized North Korea’s human rights violations. That day, the U.S. sanctioned three North Korean entities for human rights and censorship activities, but the list originally was planned to be more extensive.

Abruptly reversing policy course. Statements by U.S. officials prior to and after the Hanoi summit reflect distinctly different approaches toward North Korea, though they deny any shift in policy. Trump’s unilateral reversal of his administration’s plans to increase pressure on North Korea is reminiscent of his 2018 decision to cancel allied military exercises without conferring with the secretary of defense, the Defense Department, U.S. Forces Korea, South Korea or Japan.

That unilateral decision subsequently led to the cancellation of at least 11 allied exercises and constraints imposed on additional exercises. The initiative was not met with reciprocal action by North Korea, since it wasn’t the subject of negotiations and wasn’t even discussed during the Hanoi summit.

Gen. Robert Abrams, U.S. Forces Korea commander, recently testified, “We have observed no significant changes to size, scope, or timing of [North Korea’s] ongoing exercises.” He added that Pyongyang’s annual Winter Training Cycle involved 1 million troops.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Thomas Spoehr, now a defense analyst at The Heritage Foundation, assessed that cancellation of allied exercises as “the wrong decision for the wrong reasons,” noting that it “could weaken U.S. and South Korean readiness in a conflict with North Korea.” Spoehr concluded, “Why the most powerful nation in the world would cancel the very exercises that guarantee its readiness with a key ally, in order to please a dictator like Kim, is a mystery.”

The uncertain path ahead. Pressure from the cumulative effects of 11 U.N. resolutions, U.S. and international laws is what brought North Korea back to the negotiating table. Pyongyang was fixated on sanctions relief during the Hanoi summit, reflecting how severely they were hurting the regime’s finances. Only continued and enhanced sanctions measures, coupled with pragmatic diplomacy and enhanced allied deterrent capabilities, may induce North Korea to denuclearize.

Sanctions are a critical component of U.S. foreign policy, upholding America’s laws and defending its financial system, but only if they are implemented effectively. For years, U.S. administrations have pulled their punches on enforcing U.S. laws. President Trump’s decision to prevent additional sanctions enforcement will only make it even harder for Washington to induce other nations to fully implement U.N. sanctions.

Moreover, the decision constituted an additional concession to North Korea, despite there being no diplomatic progress toward denuclearization. With sanctions apparently in abeyance, military exercises cancelled or constrained, and North Korea putting diplomatic meetings on hold, the “maximum pressure” policy is looking more and more like President Obama’s “strategic patience.”

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation. He previously served 20 years with the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, including as CIA’s deputy division chief for analysis of North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @BruceKlingner.