President Donald Trump on Friday (Mar 22) said he was cancelling sanctions imposed by his own Treasury Department to tighten international pressure on North Korea.
“It was announced today by the US 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!” Trump tweeted.
He appeared to be referring to measures unveiled Thursday that targeted two Chinese companies accused of helping North Korea to evade tight international sanctions meant to pressure Pyongyang into ending its nuclear weapons programme.
They were the first new sign of pressure since talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke down in Hanoi less than a month ago.
“President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” the president’s spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, said. She did not specify which sanctions Trump spoke of.
On Thursday, Trump national security advisor John Bolton had tweeted that the sanctions were meant to put an end to “illicit shipping practices” by North Korea.
“Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion,” he said.
China complained, saying that it did enforce all UN resolutions and opposed “any country imposing unilateral sanctions and taking long-arm jurisdiction against any Chinese entity according to their own domestic laws.”
An administration source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Trump’s tweet had nothing to do with the Thursday sanctions, but rather was meant to refer to a decision to not go forward with additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea at this time.
There has been no sign of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang since the collapse of the Feb 27-28 summit, though Trump has stressed his good personal relationship with Kim and his administration has said repeatedly it is willing to reengage.
North Korea has warned it is considering suspending talks and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests, in place since 2017, unless Washington makes concessions.
Hours after Thursday’s sanctions announcement, North Korea on Friday pulled out of a liaison office with South Korea, a major setback for Seoul, which has pushed hard for engagement between Washington and Pyongyang.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Mar 4 he was hopeful he could send a team to North Korea “in the next couple of weeks,” but there has been no sign of a North Korean willingness to extend such an invitation.
ATTEMPT TO DEFUSE TENSIONS?
Harry Kazianis of the conservative Center for the National Interest think tank said Trump’s tweet could be an effort to defuse tensions that seemed to be building between Washington and Pyongyang and the risk of North Korea pulling out of talks.
“Trump’s cancelling out of sanctions might have been a bid to get North Korea to change its thinking,” he said.
Another North Korea expert, Bruce Klingner, said that while Thursday’s Treasury action was limited, an accompanying notice seemed to hint of stronger future actions.
Klingner said Trump’s move signalled that his “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign on North Korea was not going to get any stronger and recalled an announcement the president made before a first summit with Kim in June last year when he said he was putting a large list of planned sanctions on hold.