Asia Pacific

'Utterly shocking': Trump sparks new confusion over North Korea sanctions policy

by Margaret Talev and Saleha Mohsin

Bloomberg

The U.S. will leave in place North Korea-related sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies that were announced on Thursday, and U.S. President Donald Trump has no plans to impose additional penalties on Kim Jong Un’s government, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The two people, who were granted anonymity to discuss the issue, spoke on Friday night, hours after Trump threw U.S. sanctions policy toward North Korea into confusion, saying on Twitter that he had ordered the withdrawal of “additional large scale” penalties his government imposed against the country.

Trump said the new sanctions had been issued on Friday, but the Treasury Department made no such announcement. Treasury announced sanctions against the two shipping companies on Thursday to punish them for alleged violations of existing sanctions against shipments to North Korea.

Spokesmen for the White House and the Treasury Department didn’t explain Trump’s midday announcement before the end of the day.

Trump has a penchant for making policy on Twitter, catching his own government off-guard. On Thursday, he announced in a tweet that the U.S. should recognize the disputed Golan Heights as Israeli territory, surprising State Department officials.

“This is utterly shocking,” John Smith, a former director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury, which issues and polices sanctions, said in an email. “The president of the United States actively undercut his own sanctions agency for the benefit of North Korea.”

Smith left the agency in May. A second former OFAC official, Sean Kane, said in an email that Trump’s announcement was “unprecedented” and “calls any OFAC action into question when no one can be sure whether they’re speaking for the administration.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

Sanders didn’t specify which sanctions Trump planned to withdraw, and didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

One of the two Chinese shipping companies, Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd., is doing business with a sanctioned North Korean company, Treasury said in a statement on Thursday. The other, Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd., was sanctioned for “operating in the transportation industry in North Korea,” Treasury said.

The U.S. also updated a North Korea shipping advisory, adding dozens of vessels that are believed to have engaged in ship-to-ship transfers of oil with North Korean tankers or exported North Korean coal to evade sanctions.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, publicly applauded the actions on Thursday.

“The maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices,” he said in a tweet, adding that “everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.”

Trump abruptly ended a summit with Kim in Hanoi last month after the president said the North Korean leader had asked for all U.S. sanctions to be lifted in exchange for the dismantling of the country’s main nuclear facility. Each side has blamed the other, with the U.S. saying North Korea demanded too much sanctions relief and Pyongyang faulting Washington for rejecting its promises to reduce its nuclear program.

North Korea has recently demonstrated its frustration with the outcome of the summit.

Last week, one of North Korea’s top diplomats, Choe Son Hui, said Kim would decide soon whether to continue to refrain from weapons tests, blaming the breakdown in Hanoi on the America’s “gangster-like” demands.

And on Friday, Pyongyang withdrew from a liaison office it established with South Korea last year that allowed the rivals to communicate around the clock. The last time the Koreas used the office for a meeting was Feb. 22.

North Korea informed the Seoul government that it was “pulling out with instructions from the superior authority,” South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung said. The ministry said in an emailed statement that it regrets the withdrawal and urged the North to promptly return to the office.

While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to act as a bridge between Trump and Kim, Choe called her country’s southern neighbor “a player, not an arbiter,” because it was an ally of Washington. North Korea has called South Korea “cowardly” for cooperating with U.S. sanctions, according to its propaganda website, Uriminzokkiri.