Trump admin leaning toward tougher sanctions & (maybe) “covert actions”

For weeks, we’ve heard that the Trump administration was expected to complete a top-to-bottom review of North Korea policy by the end of this month. Barely into the second week, Reuters is already giving us a peek at where the review is headed. Skim past the mandatory all-options-are-on-the-table disclaimer and “senior U.S. officials” say this:

They added a consensus was forming around relying for now on increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially by pressing China to do more to rein in North Korea – while deploying advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and possibly in Japan, as well. [Reuters]

Just as I predicted somewhere, the North Koreans did something provocative early in Trump’s presidency, and that strategy backfired bigly:

Among the other possibilities, one U.S. official said, was returning North Korea to the U.S. list of countries that support terrorism. That would be a response to the suspected use of nerve gas to kill Kim’s brother at a Malaysian airport last month. It would subject Pyongyang – already heavily sanctioned by the United Nations and individual states, so far to little effect – to additional financial sanctions that were removed when it was taken off the list in 2008.

Sensibly, “U.S. officials” have concluded that bombing them is too dangerous an option, and just as sensibly, they say that the idea could “gain traction” if Pyongyang approaches the capability of nuking the U.S. This also intrigued me very much.

Trump also could opt for escalating cyber attacks and other covert actions aimed at undermining the North Korean leadership, a U.S. government source said.

As I say, it takes many instruments to play a symphony, and “covert actions” would do rather nicely in complementing sanctions as a means to shift the internal balance of power in North Korea and convince the elites that they must change or be changed.

Yonhap aggregates reports from various sources, including Reuters, and also concludes, “For now, a consensus is forming around the option of increasing economic and diplomatic pressure, especially by pressing China to exercise more of its leverage over Pyongyang while beefing up defenses with advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.” 

Other recent reports lend credibility to that view.

The cancellation of the visas for the North Korean diplomats who were on their way to Track 1.5 talks in Washington certainly doesn’t suggest that Trump is desperate to deal now. I wouldn’t read that as a complete aversion to talks so much as a sound judgment that this isn’t the time, because (1) we have no leverage to bargain with, (2) North Korea had just carried out a missile test and history’s first state-sponsored act of WMD terrorism, and (3) North Korea’s pre-talks declarations that its nukes and missiles were off the table. Ergo, talk about what?

A series of statements by President Trump himself, and by his reported confidant Edward Feulner, suggest that he’s leaning toward a harder line. Republicans in both the House and the Senate have also called for a policy that tightens sanctions and expands information operations.

The administration looks like it’s laying the diplomatic foundation to pressure Pyongyang. Secretary of State Tillerson has already been pushing China to use “all available tools” and its “unique leverage” to pressure North Korea to disarm, and quickly rejected China’s freeze proposal. (Let’s pray Nikki Haley is wrong about Kim Jong-un being irrational, although it’s hard for me to explain the K.L. attack as rational.)

There are early signs of financial diplomacy, too. The new Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, recently met with his South Korean counterpart to talk about how to implement sanctions against North Korea. The two governments, along with Japan, are already coordinating ways to combine their economic and financial leverage against North Korea. I’d have to think that the administration would have opposed the SWIFT ban of three North Korean banks if its policy was headed in a different direction.

This week’s actions by the Justice, Treasury, and Commerce departments against Chinese IT firm ZTE for exporting Commerce-controlled technology to Iran and North Korea suggest that China has lost its immunity from consequences for breaking our laws. Although it would be overstating matters to say that China was completely off-limits during the Obama administration, for Trump to go this big this soon sends a strong signal when Trump and Xi are still sniffing each other out. If I can offer the Chinese banking industry some advice that could save them billions of dollars, it would be to invest in Anti-Money Laundering compliance and Know-Your-Customer programs.

All of this would be the best possible start for getting the fundamental policy direction right. What remains to be seen is whether Trump will put sufficient resources, competent staff, and political will on this problem. It’s a policy that will require steadiness and patience against an enemy that’s good at breaking our attention and our coalitions with both bribery and extortion. And building pressure is never as hard as knowing how to use that pressure to achieve realistic outcomes. 

A programming note: This was supposed to be the short post that lasted half a commute while I turned back to writing about the U.N. Panel of Experts report. See how well that plan worked? Tomorrow, we return to our regularly scheduled programming, God willing. Please, Kim Jong-un, try not to do anything too stupid for two or three days so I can keep up, OK?

Update: So just around the time I posted this, the news of Park Geun-hye’s removal from office broke. I probably won’t post about that, because: (1) I’m not a Korean lawyer; (2) I haven’t read the decision; (3) consequently, I have no useful knowledge to contribute to your understanding of it; (4) I accepted this as the likely outcome months ago; (5) I want to use my limited time to write about other things where I have more value to add; and (6) my feelings on this topic are conflicted. If Park really did extort bribes — and I have to give the court the benefit of the doubt that she did — then she deserved to be removed from office. Belatedly, she ended up getting North Korea right, which makes it all the more disappointing that she dragged a sound policy down with her. The only thing I’m fairly certain of now is that the next South Korean president will have a worse North Korea policy than the last one, and if it’s Moon Jae-in, we may be headed for a crisis in the alliance. If Moon takes his North Korea policy where I think he wants to take it, the Trump administration may view that alliance as more of a liability — or a bargaining chip — than an asset. It’s never too early for buyer’s remorse.

2 Comments

  1. DPRK totalitarianism should be ‘the’ focus or always ‘a’ focus. The naked DPRK is a hostage taker, a liar, and a bully. You either have faith with wisdom in the Republic or you serve DPRK thuggary with doubt and no backbone.




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