As one of my previous bosses reminded me, this is what happens when you miss a meeting. On Wednesday, North Korea failed to show up as scheduled in Panmunjom to discuss the process of repatriating the remains of US soldiers killed in the Korean War. That followed after officials in Pyongyang criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for “gangster-like” demands during denuclearization talks, suggesting that they might want further concessions.
Instead, the US responded by demanding that all oil shipments cease to North Korea:
The United States said Thursday that North Korea has already exceeded the annual cap allowed for oil imports, and asked the United Nations to order an immediate halt to all transfers of oil to the country.
The request underscores the U.S. determination to keep squeezing North Korea through existing economic sanctions to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons that threaten the United States. Although tensions have eased up since President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month, talks on denuclearization have hit a rocky spot since then. …
In Thursday’s report submitted to the U.N. committee responsible for monitoring North Korean sanctions, the United States said North Korean tankers filled up with oil using ship-to-ship transfers at least 89 times in the first five months of 2018.
According to a copy of the report seen by The Washington Post, U.S. officials calculated that even if the tankers carried only one-third of their full load, North Korea would have already exceeded the annual quota of 500,000 barrels allowed under U.N. sanctions.
It’s almost certainly no coincidence that this report happened to be available at the very moment when North Korea exhibited balkiness in the negotiations. Both Donald Trump and Mike Pence have repeatedly stated that they would not fall into the same trap that caught previous administrations by providing concessions for mere talks. Without real concessions on denuclearization, the Trump administration has maintained, there would be no concessions on sanctions.
This is the first yank on the choke chain, in other words. It lets Kim Jong-un know that we mean business, and that the administration hasn’t bought into the peace narrative so deeply as to be afraid to get tough. Trump canceled the summit two months ago after a similar no-show and eruption of angry rhetoric from Pyongyang, and the point of this demand to the UN is to show that Trump’s position hasn’t changed.
On the other hand, Trump went out of his way to flatter Kim yesterday:
In a tweet, Trump posted copies of the four-paragraph note — both in Korean and translated into English — in which Kim stated that the summit was the “start of a meaningful journey” and that a “new future” between the two nations “will surely come to fruition.”
“I deeply appreciate the energetic and extraordinary efforts made by Your Excellency Mr. President for the improvement of relations,” Kim said, according to the letter, dated July 6. That was the day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived for two days of meetings with top North Korean officials, which ended on a sour note after Pyongyang blasted the U.S. side over a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”
In his note, Kim offered no reassurances that he is committed to relinquishing his country’s nuclear weapons or ballistic missile arsenal, referring more generally to “the faithful implementation of the joint statement” agreed to in Singapore. That statement said North Korea would “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” but offered no details on when or how Pyongyang would dismantle its program.
“A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea,” Trump said in his tweet. “Great progress being made!”
That’s a clever counterpoint to the yank on the choke chain. Kim appears to have a large stockpile of vanity (something Trump should certainly recognize), and the best way to manipulate him may be to flatter him. If Trump praises Kim while tightening sanctions, he’s letting Kim take the magnanimous route by overruling his minions to order better cooperation and a dial-down of rhetoric. That worked in May, and it might still be the best strategy.
If nothing else, though, this tightening of sanctions demonstrates that the Trump administration is far from giving away the store to Kim. As long as he cooperates, Trump’s willing to be friendly, but the sanctions won’t go anywhere as long as the nukes don’t. If that approach doesn’t work with Kim, then it’s pretty safe to say nothing will — and we haven’t lost anything with this strategy even if that’s the case.