“President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
With that Friday night statement from White House press secretary Sarah Saunders, foreign policy’s favorite star-crossed lovers were back: the ardent Donald Trump and the elusive dictator Kim Jong-un, kept apart by … the United States Treasury. Which, according to the Constitution, reports to President Trump.
Earlier on Friday, the president sparked “rampant confusion” within his administration when he tweeted this:
The problem: the U.S. hadn’t unveiled any new “large scale sanctions” against North Korea. Some thought Trump might be referring to Treasury’s announcement on Thursday that it would sanction Chinese shipping companies for breaking rules barring transactions with Pyonyang, but that was a small step – just two firms were targeted. Eventually, administration officials told the Washington Post, it was determined that Trump was talking about “a future round of previously unknown sanctions,” which were set to be announced in the coming days.
Since the Hanoi summit fell apart last month, administration officials have steadily sought to portray a hardening stance toward North Korea without appearing to close the door on further talks and progress. The growing extent of North Korea’s sanctions-busting – including exporting weapons and military training to war zones, and importing the fuel and other basics – has been hard to ignore. Pyongyang has been accused of selling weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen (whom our allies, the Saudis, are killing) and training soldiers in Uganda. A leaked United Nations report contained new evidence of North Korea flouting sanctions, including its transfer of 57,000 barrels of oil between ships on the high seas. The head of the U.N. panel behind the report said he had “never seen such elaborate methods of smuggling,” adding that the North is getting better at it all the time.
Responding with new sanctions, however small, would have been another step in tensions ratcheting upwards. Last week, a North Korean official threatened to cut off continuing negotiations (although they aren’t actually continuing at the moment). She seemed to be trying to differentiate between the U.S. government and Trump, referring to the “gangster-like stand” of the U.S. but calling relations between Trump and Kim “mysteriously wonderful” – the kind of thing you say about your friend’s romance that you really, really don’t get.
But North Korea’s response to the failed summit has gone beyond talk. Within the week after Hanoi, analysts at several think tanks observed independently that one of the country’s important rocket test launching facilities, which it had partially dismantled as a sign of good faith after the Singapore Summit, had just been restored. This was backed up by leaks from intelligence agencies noting increased activity at the site. Breathless speculation that a missile test might be imminent ensued.
The Trump administration, to its credit, batted down the speculation and stuck carefully to calm expressions of uncertainty about what the construction might mean. But National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has mused publicly about a pre-emptive attack on North Korea, warned Pyongyang not to test or launch, and conservative administration allies called for a stronger response – even as Secretary of State Pompeo continued to insist that the administration believes a negotiated agreement remains possible.
That agreement keeps getting bigger and more complex, though. Two weeks ago the administration’s North Korea negotiator, Steven Biegun said that – in addition to the nuclear weapons and facilities Pyongyang has so far refused to consider cataloguing or inspecting, let alone destroying – North Korean disarmament would have to include its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
His administration may be confused, but you have to hand it to Trump for consistency. “I have a feeling that our relationship with North Korea, Kim Jong-un and myself, I think it is a very good one,” Trump told reporters last week. “I think it remains good.”
If only relations with our actual allies were so good. The Trump administration stunned observers shortly after the Hanoi summit by announcing that the U.S. would not resume large-scale military exercises with South Korea – giving the North something it very much wanted without getting anything in return. Then came reports that the White House had directed the Pentagon to prepare to re-negotiate agreements with every country that hosts U.S. troops, with an option that the host countries would pay every cent of U.S. costs, plus 50 percent. If enacted, that could raise South Korea’s costs five or six times. This was quite a shock to Seoul, which had just renewed its base agreement with the U.S. for just one year, agreeing to pay 9 percent more. The idea also drew outrage from conservatives like former vice president Dick Cheney, who see globally-deployed forces as one of the foundations of U.S. power, as well as from liberals and libertarians who dislike the idea of U.S. troops being used as mercenaries for sale to a high bidder.
We are in uncharted territory here. It used to be pretty rare that presidents failed to control the executive branch policy process – and when it did happen, they wouldn’t show off their failure. Perhaps, one day, we will again have a president who wants to work with the executive branch, not against it; and two political parties, not just one, that take the role of congressional oversight of national security policy seriously. We had better hope so. Because it is increasingly clear that North Korea will still have nuclear weapons. More of them. And we will have fewer partners, and less trusting ones, to counter them.