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North Koreans prepare for ‘hardship’ as Trump administration struggles to explain sanctions

The president's comments about sanctions relief reveal the chasm between Trump and his own national security adviser.

Confusion surrounds Trump's sanctions strategy as North Koreans prepare for hard times. (PHOTO CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Confusion surrounds Trump's sanctions strategy as North Koreans prepare for hard times. (PHOTO CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

North Korea is telling its people to prepare for the worst as it becomes clear that that its negotiations with the Trump administration are going nowhere.

In a blog post published Sunday, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho (who defected in 2016) noted that Pyongyang has ratcheted up its messaging to “unprecedented” levels, telling its roughly 26 million citizens they can live on “water and air,” and that they are likely to face “a tougher time than the march of hardship in the ’90s.”

This directive comes as the Trump administration’s discombobulated North Korea policy is exposed once again. Last week, President Donald Trump posted a confusing tweet about sanctions relief for North Korea, leaving the White House, Treasury Department and Pentagon scrambling to figure out what he was talking about.

“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,” he wrote. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

Prior to that tweet, Trump had said very little about negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program following the February Hanoi summit — the second round of failed talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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Trump’s comments were an abrupt departure from the “maximum pressure” strategy the administration claimed would guarantee a path to victory. They also prompted chaos across the administration, as no new sanctions had been announced around the time of Trump’s tweet. 

The last sanctions, targeting Chinese shipping companies that the U.S. Treasury Department claimed were helping North Korea circumvent sanctions, were announced on Thursday, and were supported by national security adviser John Bolton enthusiastically.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Trump’s tweet was in reference to those sanctions. According to CNBC, the Pentagon and Treasury Department both declined to clarify, punting queries to the White House.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday stated simply, “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

A U.S. official told NBC News on Friday, however, that “Trump’s tweet was NOT about yesterday’s sanctions. It was about new, bigger sanctions that had not yet been announced but were apparently imminent.”

The State Department has not yet released any statements in response to the president’s tweet.

Experts say the confusion is emblematic of the president’s larger foreign policy strategy.

“This is a reflection of something that has been true all along: the president and his team are on completely separate tracks when it comes to North Korea,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat focusing on the Koreas.

Speaking with ThinkProgress, he said Trump was “focused mostly on his personal image.”

“He hopes continued engagement with North Korea will make him seem like the great dealmaker he claims to be. His advisers are more skeptical of diplomacy and have more faith in the power of pressure through sanctions,” Oba said.

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Both positions, he added, have their “merits,” but the blatant confusion and contradiction within the administration is detrimental.

“It makes it look like your policy is totally uncoordinated and you weren’t in the loop to begin with.” 

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association told ThinkProgress that the White House’s North Korea strategy is “very poorly coordinated” demonstrating “incredibly incompetent policy execution” that will make it difficult to achieve any progress in denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

“”Trump is attempting to tell Kim Jong-un that he wants to maintain a steady course, and at this time, doesn’t see necessary to tighten existing sanctions — which is not what John Bolton sees necessary at this time,” he added.

The February Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim yielded nothing in the way of progress. The president claimed he had to “walk” because Pyongyang was demanding total sanctions relief, while the North Koreans immediately held a press conference contradicting the president’s statement, saying they’d pursued a more gradual approach. 

It’s impossible to know what actually happened. As with the first meeting between Trump in Kim, which took place in Singapore last June, no transcripts of the meeting have been provided. 

As of last week, negotiations between the two countries had stalled after North Korea declared it was halting talks with the United States, possibly returning to weapons testing. Already, there have been reports of renewed activity at the Sohae Lon-range missile site. Satellite images show what appears to be construction activity at the formerly dormant site.

Trump seems to be aware that taking any additional provocative measures might prompt North Korea to respond in kind, which would essentially blow up any chance the president has of delivering on one of this key campaigning points, with the 2020 presidential race approaching.

Kimball said that he’s aware of “a debate inside the White House about whether to tighten the existing sanctions” since Hanoi. But, if this weekend’s confusion reveals anything at all, he said, it’s that consensus has not been reached — a dangerous place for the administration to be.

“The U.S. government can’t be zigging and zagging about its strategy — it’s crazy,” he said.