The White House in four tweets Wednesday afternoon issued a comprehensive statement on the status of efforts to disarm Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
China, according to the statement, is unhelpfully supplying money and crucial commodities to North Korea, American trade actions are affecting Beijing’s actions in North Korea, President Donald Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong Un remains “very good and warm,” there is no need at this time to spend money on major “war games” with South Korea, the trade dispute and other disagreements with China will be settled “in time,” and Trump’s bond with Chinese ruler Xi Jinping continues to be “very strong.”
The statement reveals Trump, despite recent setbacks, has not abandoned a generous and sometimes indulgent approach to North Korea and its backers. That approach, unfortunately, is risky in the extreme and, if not adjusted soon, could result in bad actors—and not the United States—shaping events.
Trump’s overall policy since June, it appears, has been to make Kim Jong Un feel secure enough to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Therefore, the American leader has tried to create a personal bond with Kim, accepted at the Singapore summit in June a vague joint statement adopting North Korean formulations, and effectively abandoned the “maximum pressure” campaign. Furthermore, Trump suspended the major joint military exercises with South Korea and expressed his desire “at some point” to remove all American forces from the Korean peninsula.
Trump’s policy was premised on the assumption that Kim, so that he could develop his economy, had made a fundamental decision to give up his most destructive weapons.
It is true that Kim has made some concessions since Singapore. Late last month, for instance, he turned over 55 sets of Korean War remains. A few days before, the regime began dismantling the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
Unfortunately, the North in recent months has also continued the production of fissile material at multiple locations, continued reconditioning and upgrading of the Yongbyon plutonium-producing reactor, and continued to build facilities for the construction of ballistic missiles, particularly at Sanumdong.
Most revealingly, the North Koreans humiliated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following talks in Pyongyang in the first week of July with spymaster Kim Yong Chol. After Pompeo issued an optimistic assessment of his two days of negotiations—an assessment that was not credible even when made because Kim Jong Un blew off a meeting with him—the North ripped the discussions as “regrettable” and accused America of a “gangster-like mindset.”
Last Friday, an apparently provocative letter from Kim Yong Chol prompted Trump to cancel Pompeo’s follow-up trip to the North Korean capital, which was originally scheduled for this week.
In short, Kim Jong Un has clearly not made the decision to take advantage of the “one-time shot” Trump mentioned in early June, on the eve of the Singapore summit.
And who can blame Kim? The Trump administration, with the exception of three minor sets of sanctions designations issued by the Treasury Department this month, has since the summit watched Beijing and Moscow with impunity violate U.N. rules and U.S. money-laundering laws.
These Chinese and Russian actions have been so blatant that sanctions-busting has become contagious. After all, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, now believes he can flout U.N. rules as well.
Complaining about sanctions violations on Twitter is not going to stop them, unfortunately. Trump, although willing to repeatedly call out the Chinese on his favorite social-media platform, has virtually imposed no costs on them. There have been, for instance, no fines on Chinese banks laundering money for North Korea, and there have been no designations as “primary money laundering concerns” under Section 311 of the Patriot Act since June of last year, when Treasury designated small-fry Bank of Dandong.
The Bank of Dandong designation was widely interpreted as a signal to China’s larger banks, including the so-called Big Four. Beijing, from all indications, has chosen to ignore the warning. All of the Big Four, incredibly, appear to be implicated in this criminal activity.
Trump, however, remains patient, which is the underlying message of Wednesday’s Twitter-delivered statement. In the statement, the president expressed displeasure, but did not suggest he was going back to maximum pressure.
The risk is not only will the Norks continue to perfect nukes and missiles, but also regional actors will think they can do whatever they want. Moon, in his desire to unify the two Koreas, has been moving fast to an open break with the United States and the removal of the stabilizing American presence on the peninsula.
At the same time, Kim Jong Un, is breaking out of isolation. Using the respectability that Trump conferred on him by meeting in June, Kim will now have summits with Moon and China’s Xi Jinping, both scheduled for next month in Pyongyang. Kim may also meet with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Russia—perhaps in Vladivostok—in September or “at an early date.”
Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in are now trying to drive events, and, despite what they may say, neither sees “denuclearization” as a goal. Trump by now is surely aware of the risks, but Wednesday told all concerned he is not ready to act.
Until he acts, dangerous leaders will continue to shape events as they please.