NEW YORK – Upon taking office in January 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump intensified America’s efforts to isolate North Korea. And at first, his administration’s diplomatic and pressure campaign seemed to show real progress, particularly in Africa, where North Korea maintains economic and military ties with more than two dozen countries.
But that progress was suddenly reversed last year, when Trump prematurely declared victory in the aftermath of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. On Wednesday and Thursday, Trump will hold his second summit with Kim. If he repeats the same mistake, his own administration’s efforts to isolate North Korea will take another beating and Kim will have even less reason to end his weapons program.
Before the Singapore summit, the Trump administration had been strengthening United Nations sanctions against North Korea, emphasizing enforcement and reaching out to African countries to secure their support. And this combination of U.S. high-level engagement, cajoling and arm twisting led several African governments — including those of Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and Angola — to announce that they would scale back their ties to North Korea. While some committed to expelling North Korean military trainers, others promised to stop buying North Korean arms and doing business with U.N.-sanctioned companies. These steps promised to isolate North Korea further and reduce its access to the hard currency needed to sustain its nuclear and missile programs.
Sadly, what took years to achieve was lost in a single day. In a characteristically grandiose and unsubstantiated tweet, Trump declared on June 13 that, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Though his own vice president and intelligence chiefs would later voice very different conclusions, Trump was committed to selling the fiction of a diplomatic breakthrough, even to the point of stifling U.S. diplomats. As the Wall Street Journal reported in December, “Many in the Trump administration have been instructed to remain quiet on North Korean defiance over concern speaking out could undercut the image of an effective sanctions regime or weigh on negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.”
With the Trump administration focused wholly on propping up a false narrative, African governments with illicit ties to North Korea no longer had to worry about U.S. pressure over sanctions, nor did they have any incentive to follow through on their promises to cut ties. After all, for African countries, North Korea poses no direct security threat, but does offer friendship, cheap arms and infrastructure investments.
Since Trump started pretending that he has ended the North Korean nuclear threat, African countries have likewise been pretending to end ties with the Kim regime. Though they are being more surreptitious about it, North Korean commandos are still training Ugandan soldiers, and North Korean companies like Malaysia Korea Partners and Mansudae are still flouting sanctions and making money in Africa. And U.S. officials are hamstrung, unable to respond appropriately, lest they be seen as contradicting the White House’s official line.
It is not surprising that Trump chose showmanship over substance, or that he scuttled a long-term sanctions enforcement effort in the process. But the significance of this blunder should not be understated. Trump’s single tweet and ongoing self-delusion about North Korea’s nuclear program will likely leave the U.S. with fewer options for isolating or confronting the Kim regime long into the future.
For North Korea, the foothold in Africa is of great importance, especially if and as the U.S. convinces China and Russia to curtail their own illicit support for the Kim regime. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity at MIT, North Korea’s trade with African countries has provided the regime with hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years. At the same time, a U.N. Panel of Experts has singled out North Korea’s connections to various African countries as a concerning weak spot in global sanctions enforcement.
Trump has personally undercut years of work to isolate North Korea and deprive it of funding, thereby expanding the Kim regime’s options and reducing pressure on it to negotiate peaceful disarmament. Unless Trump aligns his claims with reality after the upcoming summit with Kim in Vietnam, he will further weaken the sanctions enforcement regime needed to choke off the international relationships that enable North Korea to sustain its weapons programs. Self-proclaimed victories on Twitter don’t count.
Grant T. Harris was special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs at the White House from 2011-2015. © Project Syndicate, 2019 www.project-syndicate.org